Sweden’s Covid-19 experiment didn’t work out so well

by Eszter Hargittai on May 10, 2020

As some of you may know, Sweden tried a different approach to the Coronavirus pandemic by avoiding a lockdown and major closures. Did it work? Not so much.

While unfortunate for Swedes, it does offer a helpful example for other countries to address those skeptical of whether lockdowns were necessary. In the graph below, a few countries for comparison in terms of reported cases per population. In case you’re wondering whether this is just about reported cases, note that Sweden is also among the worst now in terms of fatalities by reported cases and deaths per population.

Do you have favorite resources for country-specific stats? If yes, please share in the comments! My source for the above info is the helpful corona-data.ch site. I have also been following Switzerland’s situation here.



Matt 05.10.20 at 11:31 am

I’ve found the “Our would in data” site pretty easy to use and useful:

(I do wish that people making graphs like the above would use brighter, or bolder, or more distinct colors. I suppose it’s difficult when there are lots of countries represented – this is sometimes a problem w/ the site I link to above – but when there are only a few, it shouldn’t take as long for me to figure out which line is for which country as it often does, and did here.)


Stephen T Johnson 05.10.20 at 12:44 pm

My go-to website for Covid-19 is 91-divoc.com.
Lots of options on what data to show (Cases, deaths total, weekly and normalized by population). It’s rather deflated my initially rather positive estimate of how well Canada has done.
For what it’s worth, the Sweden dat is particularly striking if you compare it to the other Nordic countries, i.e, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland


Elmar Unnsteinsson 05.10.20 at 1:35 pm

For very good data on Iceland: https://www.covid.is/data


oldster 05.10.20 at 1:43 pm

My impression is that the picture in Canada varies quite a lot by province.

The western provinces are still enjoying unearned benefits from their relative isolation and sparse populations.

Quebec is being hit the hardest, in ways familiar from the US/UK model — where poverty is prevalent and social services are poor, the death rate is high.

Ontario, meanwhile, seems to be doing far better than most US/UK populations of its size, given its centrality and large urban areas.

But I say this as a reader, not a resident, so will be happy to be corrected.


Barry 05.10.20 at 3:05 pm

I’ve got a comment in moderation, probably due to having 3 links in it.
Eszter, would you please pluck it to safety?


JanieM 05.10.20 at 3:06 pm

oldster: My impression is that the picture in Canada varies quite a lot by province.

Yesterday’s article in my local paper (in Maine) about our neighbor, New Brunswick.


Dogen 05.10.20 at 3:29 pm


Dipper 05.10.20 at 3:34 pm

I’m not getting a sense here or anywhere of an underlying predictive model of how a nation can expect to be hit. The first and most obvious point is that Covid hasn’t hit within nations equally. It has hammered cities with high population densities and hardly touched many rural areas. So when we take, eg the map of Europe, and draw some fairly arbitrary lines on it, aggregate the hits within this arbitrary lines and then rank the performance of those arbitrary lines, I’m not sure it is telling us much more than the distribution of population densities. Belgium has been the worst country on the continent of Europe in terms of performance, and is also the one worst hit. The most extreme case is New York City. It got absolutely hammered. Weighting that result by diluting it with other less hit areas isn’t not adding to our understanding, and doesn’t make its performance better.

Also, we are on some intermediate lap of a long-distance race. We don’t know when this will end, or what the rankings will be then. Nations locking down early and avoiding the spread may be storing upon some unfortunate choices when other nations have reached an effective herd immunity and are back at full speed and they are stuck unable to open up their borders.

Finally, as this is a left-wing site, the UK left wing had a major push at the back end last year of the cost in lives of Austerity. Lots of stuff about Tory murderers due to the political cuts. Funnily enough, now that the UK left are demanding long-term incarceration and consequent destruction of the economy, those calculations seem to have been forgotten. So perhaps someone could dig out those calculations and give a number for how much their lockdowns will cost in lives.

This is not to say that those people wanting lockdowns are wrong and those people wanting them lifted are right. This virus has been full of unpleasant surprises and may have a few more. But I have to say I am fairly sick of non-scientists grabbing a few facts and using them as debating points. Science is different to the Humanities. The physical world has its own reality, discovering its truths is extremely hard work with many wrong turns, and the truth is often more surprising than we can imagine. But whatever, for the moment everyone is an expert on science.


Dipper 05.10.20 at 4:17 pm

doh … Belgium has one of the highest population densities.


Stephen T Johnson 05.10.20 at 4:19 pm

That’s pretty much my understanding, too.
I had just hoped that nationally, we in Canuckistan might have done better than the truly dismal US/UK performance. As it is, we’re a little better but not much.


Eszter Hargittai 05.10.20 at 4:39 pm

Barry, fyi, everything goes into moderation. But I don’t see a comment from you other than this one asking me to look for the one with three links. Would you mind reposting?


PGR 05.10.20 at 5:09 pm

As a very recent migrant to Sweden, I’d like to suggest that the question “did it work?” can only be answered with a prior look at the objective(s) in play. Likewise the answer to the question “are lockdowns necessary?” depends on what you want a lockdown to achieve. Not being privy to government decisions (as I don’t yet have the language skills to follow them), I’m not sure what those objectives might have been, but I would suggest they may not have been necessarily nor exclusively based on the number of fatalities per capita as measured at a point long before the pandemic is over, whether in Sweden or anywhere else. I’m sure that’s one measure — but I suspect there are more. (The state epidemiology team’s daily press conferences to the public are all archived online; like everything else here, they are a matter of public record. You can also access the daily stats on C19 in Sweden here.) I suspect there are more measures in play in a lot of other places, too — only the governments in those places aren’t being quite so straight with their citizens about their aims and results.

Indeed, Sweden is making an useful scapegoat for countries of a more instinctively authoritarian bent for exactly that reason. Sure, the total death rate per capita is pretty high — but based on the stats from your site-of-preference, there, it’s almost exactly the same as that for the Netherlands, where a fairly serious lockdown is just about to be lightened, and significantly lower than that of France, where Macron has “made war upon” the virus from a very early stage — or at least, has tried to. (Turns out that announcing a lockdown is far easier than, y’know, making one stick.) But ain’t many smug op-eds about the failure of the Netherlands’s or France’s response, are there? Of course not! Because that would mean that questioning of the effectiveness of lockdowns was taking place within states where lockdowns are already policy.

Confirmation bias is one heck of a drug, no?

The neoliberal obsession with competitive league tables takes on a freshly grim irony when folk start trying to run them in the midst of a pandemic that’s nowhere near over yet, using data that’s at best vague (e.g. extrapolated numbers of cases from small numbers of actual tests) and at worst massaged by states themselves (which is Very Wrong when China does it, but broadly acceptable anywhere else, apparently). I suspect that when we look back on this situation after two or three years, the ways in which we answer the question “did it work?” will be very different. To be clear, I’m not saying lockdowns aren’t necessary; I’m saying that it’s probably still too early to understand how useful (or not) they actually are. Maybe Sweden’s response will indeed have been shown to have been unsuccessful; maybe the same will also be said of many other places, of many different responses, for a whole swathe of different reasons, once the smoke has cleared.

In the meantime, maybe we should stop trying to call the result of a race that’s still being run — or perhaps even stop thinking of it as a race at all? Because, credit where it’s due, you’ve gotta give the Swedes one thing: they’re conspicuously not passing judgement on the responses of other states. Look to the mote in your own eye, etc etc.


Hidari 05.10.20 at 5:13 pm

@8 ”Finally, as this is a left-wing site, the UK left wing had a major push at the back end last year of the cost in lives of Austerity. Lots of stuff about Tory murderers due to the political cuts. Funnily enough, now that the UK left are demanding long-term incarceration and consequent destruction of the economy, those calculations seem to have been forgotten. ‘



Dan 05.10.20 at 5:17 pm

Another Swiss website I’ve been using is https://covid.visium.ch/


Chris Bertram 05.10.20 at 5:48 pm

Germany and the UK have similar population densities, and the UK is doing much worse than Germany. France, Italy, Spain and the UK with a wide variation in population densities have all done similarly to one another and very badly because they have permitted massacres in their care homes, as has the US. The UK at least had the benefit of early warning but failed to act, so that even among the states whose performance it resembles it is doing the worst. But Dipper is here to give us the talking points from the Mail and Telegraph.


Anarcissie 05.10.20 at 5:54 pm

Hidari 05.10.20 at 5:13 pm @ 13 — It’s an article of faith in certain quarters that lockdowns will cause the economy to ‘die’. That seems to mean that, for instance, asset prices will fall because less funny money will be created to inflate them, or that the investors belonging to the prices will get discouraged, or something. So when the investors / ruling class start feeling bad, they will stint on Welfare, and the poor will die in increased numbers. This line of thought might go to interesting places if pursued.


Plucky Underdog 05.10.20 at 5:55 pm

Dipper @8 (sigh): … the UK left wing had a major push at the back end last year of the cost in lives of Austerity.

10 years of austerity -> progressive erosion of state capacity -> continued penny-pinching -> lethally under-resourced response to the pandemic -> 30,000 deaths, or whatever it is by now, including one or two more while I was typing this. Some of those are austerity deaths, even if they come in one big lump.

That’s your causal chain, right there. You’re welcome.


carl d 05.10.20 at 9:13 pm

We have to remember:
1) its a marathon, not a sprint, and we have only run 5 km. some SWE epidemiologists claim all countries will have similar numbers in the end.
2) we can’t live in lockdown forever. take the NZ example: if if takes 2-3 years to get a vaccine, are they going to keep every visitor in quaratine for years? say goodbye to tourism for several years? the trick is to get out of the lockdowns. but yes, we will have learned more when lockdowns end, so we can treat patients better
3) of the 2,300 Swedish deaths, 150 people were under 60 years old. less than 400 were under 70 years old. every death is tragedy, but most of these people did not have that many years left (according to Giesecke: https://unherd.com/thepost/coming-up-epidemiologist-prof-johan-giesecke-shares-lessons-from-sweden/
4) I am amazed how many people with no expertise have opinions about these things, which are often just opinions.


anonymous 05.10.20 at 9:23 pm

“As some of you may know, Sweden tried a different approach to the Coronavirus pandemic by avoiding a lockdown and major closures. Did it work? Not so much.”

According to your own data (the graph you showed on this very post), Sweden ended up in the middle of the pack. What’s so bad about that?



Kien 05.10.20 at 10:18 pm

I assume the Swedes would say that the higher death rate is entirely consistent with their chosen strategy to achieve herd immunity, and so not a sign of failure.


Omega Centauri 05.11.20 at 12:35 am

I look at the change in the case load (or death rate) over time, on a log scale.
Right now all the major European countries look good, new cases/deaths are coming down nicely. US and Canada OTOH are stuck on deadly plateaus.


faustusnotes 05.11.20 at 12:59 am

Tokyo has much higher population density than any of your benighted European “cities” and has managed to do a fairly good job of getting the incidence of new cases under control. We need hardly mention Seoul or Wuhan or Guangzhou or Hong Kong or … well, any of the real cities in Asia. What’s happening in Sweden vs. London vs. Paris has nothing to do with population density and everything to do with policy.

Also, the comparison to me is weird, because so much depends on what happened before lockdown policies were announced. The lockdown started in NY on March 20, two weeks after the first confirmed case and when there were 7,200 cases. Sweden banned mass gatherings on 11 March, when there were 620 cases (NY did it on March 12 when there were 325 cases; Japan did it in late February when there were still very few cases). On March 10 NY mayor de Blasio was still saying it was like a common cold. Sweden also announced working-from-home measures in mid-March, which apparently people are following. High schools and universities are closed an apparently there’s been a massive drop in outdoor movement. It’s not right to say they’re doing nothing, though they don’t have a lockdown. And it’s not right to compare their policies with NY or London and say that lockdowns haven’t worked when the lockdowns in those cities came too late, and case isolation is not being done.


Omega Centauri 05.11.20 at 1:59 am

Also the underlying conditions vary widely across countries (as well as within). Its not clear why the growth rate in Africa has been a fraction of that seen in the advanced countries. Is it because of the climate? Is it because of the relative youthfullness of the population? Is it because the lower quality of the healthcare systems means people were exposed to some lesser illnesses that confer partial immunity? Is it because old vaccines such as for tuberculosis which were discontinued in more economically advanced countries confer partial immunity? Learning the answers to questions like this will be crucially important going forward.


John Quiggin 05.11.20 at 2:06 am

The crucial question is whether it’s possible to effectively eliminate the virus: more precisely, get the average reproduction rate below 1 (so outbreaks tend to die out) and get the number of cases low enough that any local outbreak can be contained with contact tracing, testing and quarantine rather than renewed lockdown.

The Swedish approach starts from the presumption that this can’t be done, so the best thing is to let all the young people catch it, while isolating the old as much as possible. At this point herd immunity is supposed to kick in.

But the experience in most of Asia/Oceania suggests that effective elimination is possible. In Australia, for example, we’ve only had 97 deaths, and a lot of these were from cruise ships and returning overseas visitors. The number of active cases has fallen almost to zero. Maybe cases will rise again as we relax restrictions, but at this stage we look a lot better off.


John Quiggin 05.11.20 at 2:13 am

“are they going to keep every visitor in quaratine for years? say goodbye to tourism for several years? ”

I’m assuming the answer to this is yes (at least outside bubbles like Aust-NZ). International tourism is obviously a significant activity, but it’s not worth tens of thousands of lives, or the costs of a permanent semi-lockdown of the rest of the economy.

And since we can’t easily travel overseas, domestic tourism will take up a lot of the slack. We’ve just relaxed some restrictions here, and booking hotel accommodation for a holiday is turning out quite challenging – everyone has the same idea.


Kiwanda 05.11.20 at 2:40 am

There’s less of a difference than might be supposed between official lockdowns and the result of individual choices. Before or after official lockdowns, due to the pandemic, people gather in groups less, take public transit less, avoid going to classes or offices if they can learn or work from home.

The plus side of that is the reduction in transmission obtained “for free”, by and for people (like me and almost everyone in my extended family) who can work from home just as productively as at the office, maybe half the workforce in the U.S. The minus side is that even without official lockdowns, a large number of low-paid service jobs won’t be coming back, for months or years. A lot of people who were scraping by paycheck to paycheck are now in deep shit, whether there’s an official lockdown or not. (This is to say nothing of the obscenity of “anti-lockdown” rules, disallowing unemployment coverage for people who don’t go back to jobs that endanger them.)

Even for R0>1, so the pandemic continues, there is still reason to keep transmission rates down: doing so doesn’t just prolong the pandemic at the expense of the economy. The slower the rate, the less the medical system is overloaded, and the more time to get more and better tests and PPE, to find better treatments, to understand the disease better. The virus doesn’t just kill people: survivors, including children, are injured in ways that are not well understood. Shooting for herd immunity as fast as possible loses those advantages.


JanieM 05.11.20 at 4:01 am

of the 2,300 Swedish deaths, 150 people were under 60 years old. less than 400 were under 70 years old. every death is tragedy, but most of these people did not have that many years left

Words fail.


Alex SL 05.11.20 at 4:03 am

Several frequently observed obfuscations rear their heads in this thread:

“My country didn’t perform poorly once you take population density into consideration.” Problem is, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam have higher population densities than the UK, and Germany has only a little less. Bonus points for all those claiming that the countries who managed well don’t have large cities, because clearly all South Koreans are living in tiny villages.

“You can’t evaluate anything until the pandemic is all over.” Do the people who make that argument expect that there will be tens of thousands more deaths in other countries in the future BECAUSE they have better testing, stricter distancing measures, and better information policies? Or do they think that the dead in the UK, Spain, Italy and USA will be magically resurrected?

According to Carl D, the idea would be that in the end all countries will have about the same result, the measures merely delaying the inevitable. But that is very obviously nonsense, because even if in the end the same percentage of people get infected there is an immediate difference between allowing your hospital system to become overwhelmed, so that even non-Covid patients die from not receiving the treatment they would normally be able to get, and not letting your system become overwhelmed. Quite apart from the difference between providing sufficient tests, PPE and respirators and not providing sufficient equipment, causing unnecessary deaths through neglect.

“Most would have died soon anyway.” Where to even start with this? The usual responses on social media contain lots of expletives, because they tend to come from people who recently buried friends, spouses or relatives or who have risk factors themselves and are justifiably enraged at being dismissed as dispensable.

All of this is immediately recognisable as desperately grasping for any random way to deflect legitimate criticism from one’s tribal leader, because none of the people making these nonsense arguments would accept them in any other context. Nobody would accept “wait until the race is over” from a racer who has just smashed his car into the wall; nobody would be fine with their loved ones being pushed off a cliff because all of us will die one day anyway.

The best British apologists are, however, those who go “of course New Zealand had it easy, in contrast to us they are an island.” That is so pathetic that it crosses the line twice and becomes funny.


Dipper 05.11.20 at 6:10 am

much of the world has shutdown due to Coronavirus with many saying we cannot lift lockdowns if there are any excess deaths, so it’s worth mentioning a couple of pre-Covid stats.

Road deaths in the UK have been in the 1,700-1,900 range per annum for the last few years. All these are preventable by banning all road travel. There would obviously be a significant economic hit but it would save lives.

Prior to the introduction of a vaccine in 1999, Meningitis C caused significant number of deaths in the UK mainly in the late teens early 20s age group (“up to 78”according to the BBC). I don’t remember anyone arguing for closures of Universities in order to stop the spread.

This is not to argue that the current response is right or wrong, just that societies have up to now accepted preventable deaths often in young people as a price worth paying for a particular standard of living.


MisterMr 05.11.20 at 6:16 am


So, what if herd immunity is never reached? Viruses mutate.

What if many places manage to effectively contain Covid 19 and relax lockdowns and start trading with each other, but not with the places where the epidemic is still rampant?

It seems to me that there is some wishful thinking at the bottom of the herd immunity idea.

To reach herd immunity, we need a situation where almost 100% of the population got covid 19 (absent a vaccine).
Even un places that were hit hard like here in Lombardy this didn’t happen; perhaps in some small cities and towns around Bergamo this did happen.
In those cities the death toll is very high, it is not something that you can hafford to have at a nationwide level: almost everyone will have multiple relatives or friends dead by covid.
I live in a different city so I only have one friend who got intubated, went into pharmacological coma, but then recovered and now is back.
In a situation where everyone has multiple friends or relative who went through this experience, many didn’t come back, and he or she himself or herself had covid and only 60% of cases are completely asimptomatic, nobody is going to accept the herd immunity idea.

Now this is already an economic bloodbath, and will continue to be, so many people for obvious reasons really want this all to go away. They want it so much that they clearly underestimate what happen in an “herd immunity” scenario, because they want a way out. But if you look at the places where the virus really went through all the population, which is to say the aforementioned small towns, you will see that this is not a feasible choice, you have things like +900% excess deaths.


Zamfir 05.11.20 at 8:01 am

@carl d, life expectancy for a 70-year old is another 17 years, on average. For an 80-year old, its another 10 years. For a 90-year old, it’s still another 4 years. Most old people are not at death’s door.


John H 05.11.20 at 8:06 am

. This might help you get a more nuanced understanding. Of course. You need to study Swdish first :P
Avlidna = deceased
intensivvårdade = in intensive care
sjukdomsfall = reported cases (sick)
These numbers are in the day they were diagnosed and diseased, not in the day they were reported. That makes the evolution of the disease and effectiveness of actions taken easier to understand.
Note that most databases only show cases reported each day. Yesterday number of reported diseased in Sweden was 3. Last sunday it was 17. Rest assure that today that number will be around 50.
Most cases aren’t reported until several days after death occured. Very few hospitals and nursing homes have staff dedicated to reporting on weekends. That is why numbers jump in the middle of the week. Those numbers are the only ones reported in brittish tabloids and mainstream news sites.
It would be helpful if all databases did the same thing the Swedish health authorities do. But I guess that is hard when most countries aren’t even able to do that themselves.

The way it works in Sweden is that all peopl reported dead are doublechecked towards the database with confirmed Covid-19 cases. This is possible since all Swedes have a unique national identity number. If anyone diagosed with Covid-19 dies within 30 days of having been diagnosed they are automaticlly reported as Covid-19 fatalities in the statistics above, regardless if they died of a car crash, drug overdose or Covid-19.
Before comparing countries, it would be good to make sure the underlying statistics are reported the same way. But good old normal research best practice seem to be in low demand these days.


Eszter Hargittai 05.11.20 at 8:07 am

Alex SL, many thanks!

MisterMr, I’m glad you and your family were not personally dealt a blow here, but so sorry for all those people around you who have had to suffer so much.


J-D 05.11.20 at 8:35 am

I am amazed how many people with no expertise have opinions about these things, which are often just opinions.

And yet you live in a world in which mirrors exist.


Dipper 05.11.20 at 8:42 am

One consequence of the Covid experience and the lockdown is going to be major changes to how academic institutions manage computer code. Neil Ferguson’s Imperial College team produced calculations that have been responsible for much of the world locking down with consequent destruction of billions of pounds of value and collateral damage to healthcare capability. The publication of this code has lead to complete shock in parts of the ‘professional’ IT community at what it sees as a lack of basic and essential practices.

There is debate about this. Much of the academic community seems to be saying that this is how academia works and the heavy bureaucracy of commercial IT isn’t really appropriate for academia. The commercial world, of which I was once a member, is generally shaking its head and saying that we ended up with the whole source code/version control/release/regression test/functional testing/full audit process precisely because we had experience of the mistakes that get made when you don’t go through that.

The questions will not just get asked about the Imperial college team but about how the whole structure of University management, research grant awards, etc managed to seemingly completely miss the need for standards round modelling. I would expect and hope that one consequence is that funding is linked to proper control and testing. If I worked in academia and wrote and used computer models I’d be getting ready right now for the inevitable inquisition.


Dipper 05.11.20 at 8:55 am

@ MisterMr

well …

I read John Lee and Matt ridley in The Spectator for my information as well as much other stuff.

The infection rate required to achieve Herd Immunity would seem to be about 60-70%. If that could be reached amongst the less vulnerable population that would allow the more vulnerable section to emerge with a degree of safety. Herd Immunity is favoured by some because in the absence of a vaccine in the foreseeable future it is the least-bad option.

There appears to be evidence that many young people do not get the virus sufficiently to form antibodies, so they will be absent from population statistics based on the presence of antibodies but will be part of the herd immunity. It also seems young people with the virus often do not pass it on.

I understand that many people don’t like the idea of herd immunity and favour a lockdown, but in the absence of a vaccine I don’t know realistically what the alternative is to a progressive lifting and changing social habits. There is a minimum two year testing period for any vaccine, and shortening that will carry significant public health safety risks. Are people in favour of locking down really suggesting that we abandon all education that takes place in person for a minimum of two years? Particularly when if these establishments were populated by people under the age of , say, 45, there appears very little risk to anyone in them?


faustusnotes 05.11.20 at 9:03 am

Please please stop talking about herd immunity. It’s not herd immunity, it’s reaching the peak of infections. It should be called “Johnson Immunity” and sneered at. Here is why it is so stupid, please stop talking about it. Also, the Swedish government denies they are pursuing a Johnson Immunity strategy, so it’s even more irrelevant.

As always Dipper is wrong. The ONS has calculated mortality in the UK and found it doubled relative to the long-term average. 70% or so of the extra deaths are COVID. It is simply insane to compare them to road deaths. Dipper notes that there are 1900 road deaths a year, but this virus has killed 5x that in a week.

And of course Dipper is reciting the lockdown-skeptics criticism of Ferguson’s work, because he is drip-fed by right wing idiots. Incidentally, Ferguson’s work isn’t being relied on by anyone in the world but the UK government – nobody in Asia believes this virus as a reproduction number as low as his estimates, and in the USA they are relying on cubic fits in Excel by Dipper’s mates.


notGoodenough 05.11.20 at 9:59 am

[Dipper, it is good to see you in the comments bringing your usual brand of nonsense – I am pleased you are back, and genuinely wish you and your family well in these difficult times.]

Dipper @ 29

Driving on a road is something which is often necessary to get from one location to another – people have made a judgement call that the benefits of being able to travel outweigh the costs of road death.

What exactly is the benefit of infection by covid 19, and how does it outweigh the costs?

Moreover, did people say “well, road deaths just happen – that’s the price we’ll have to pay for driving”, or have people worked to reduce those deaths as much as possible (seatbelts made mandatory followed by awareness campaigns, anti drink-driving, anti speeding, etc. etc.)?

Finally, as far as I can tell car crashes are not noticeable contagious.

Dipper @ 35

I am not convinced that Neil Ferguson is personally responsible for convincing every government in the world which has adopted lockdown measures to do so. One might even go so far as to ponder whether or not it is possible that other countries may also have people addressing the question, who have also come to a similar line of reasoning. Certainly there seem to be experts in the UK who are not Niel Ferguson, and who have also promulgated the usefulness of lockdown and social distancing measures. Am I to take it they are all taking their marching orders from Imperial? If so, clearly the London universities have more power than I thought.

I am also not convinced that IT people are the best to evaluate epidemiology models. That would seem rather like asking a shoemaker to evaluate a football team. However, once the criticisms have been written up, undergone peer review, and been published in reputable journals, I am fairly confident that they will be used to refine and improve how modelling is undertaken – that is, after all, how research works.

General Dipper query

Out of interest, my Dipper-esque relative has proposed that the UK’s response has been hampered because pro-EU scientists are deliberately misinforming Boris so as to undermine him as revenge for Brexit. Is this a common theory amongst the Daily Mail crowd, or is it a conspiracy theory of one?


afeman 05.11.20 at 11:19 am

The convergence of virus and climate denial, complete with code audits, is very <chef’s kiss>.


Eszter Hargittai 05.11.20 at 11:19 am


Matt 05.11.20 at 11:26 am

For what it’s worth, I have a lot of sympathy with Kevin Drum’s take here that we really just don’t know all that well yet who has done best here. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should just throw up our hands, or not try to learn, but I think it does mean we shouldn’t be too fast to generalize or think we know what is working or why:


(I’ll add that it seems to me that lots of people seem to be mistaking claims about sufficient conditions for necessary ones – so, if density is very helpful in spreading the virus, pointing to cases where it’s spread despite the city or country not being dense doesn’t at all undermine that claim. It only shows that density isn’t a necessary condition for fast spreading. But is anyone saying that? Not that I see. Other examples are easy to find.)


carl d 05.11.20 at 11:34 am

Alex SL: you have a point, not least that people wants to justify their country’s approach. that is why we also might see some angry people if we get evidence the lockdowns were unnecessarily harsh. when you criticize: “Most would have died soon anyway.” Your critique might be valid, but if that is the case: why don’t we shut all elederly homes at every flu season? why don’t we force everyone in the society to take the flu vaccine so they cannot infect other etc.? some researchers say that the people who day are over 70 years od and have underlying conditions. they have a limited number of good years left. I do not want to sound like an utilitarian, but … not all of them wants to stay in lockdown the last years of their lives either.


carl d 05.11.20 at 11:37 am

John Quiggin: maybe domestic tourism can make up for much of the lost int’l tourism in NZ. but not in some other countries where a lot of the GDP comes from tourism.


carl d 05.11.20 at 11:42 am

Zamfir. you write: ‘life expectancy for a 70-year old is another 17 years, on average. For an 80-year old, its another 10 years. For a 90-year old, it’s still another 4 years. Most old people are not at death’s door.’

Actually for people 70+ years with existing health conditions, that is not true. and most covid victims are male, which on average have shorter lives than women. furthermore, we tend to count ‘good quality years’.

Of course we should protect old people. the question that will come up is: in countries with herd immunity (if that will ever exist) it will be less important to keep old people away from others


Peter T 05.11.20 at 11:55 am

JQ @ 25: “And since we can’t easily travel overseas, domestic tourism will take up a lot of the slack. We’ve just relaxed some restrictions here, and booking hotel accommodation for a holiday is turning out quite challenging – everyone has the same idea.”

Worth sparing a thought for the many places around the world which are heavily dependent on international tourism (Fiji, Tahiti, Bali, Nepal, New Caledonia, much of the Caribbean – just off the top of my head; I am sure you can think of others). They are being hit hard.


faustusnotes 05.11.20 at 12:07 pm

Just as a cute aside on Dipper, the only people who think that the required threshold for Johnson Immunity (it’s not herd immunity, which is a different concept) is 60-70% are … Neil Ferguson’s team. The rest of the world thinks that the threshold is way higher. So Dipper’s argument for giving up on lockdown is entirely dependent on the work of a man whose work Dipper just dismissed as fraudulent. Keep it up Dipper.

Of course Dipper’s mate Ridley – who, correct me if I’m wrong Dipper, he managed to crash a bank, didn’t he? – thinks that you only need 10-30% of the population to be infected. So he thinks that this disease that was doubling every 3 days in the USA in April is barely infectious at all. I wonder if Dipper can square his bank manager mate’s opinion of the disease’s infectiousness with the evidence of his own eyes? I’m sure our Dipper can find a way!


hix 05.11.20 at 12:12 pm

Maybe there is a spam filter here that deletes posts with too many links automatically before the post shows up in moderation? Also did one with 3 links which is unlikely to have offended a human moderator.


Zamfir 05.11.20 at 12:51 pm

Dipper, the people who reorganized the code (in this case, for whatever reason, John Carmack) decribed it as
“Before the GitHub team started working on the code it was a single 15k line C file that had been worked on for a decade, and some of the functions looked like they were machine translated from Fortran. There are some tropes about academic code that have grains of truth, but turned out that it fared a lot better going through the gauntlet of code analysis tools I hit it with than a lot of more modern code. There is something to be said for straightforward C code. Bugs were found and fixed, but generally in paths that weren’t enabled or hit.”

I saw that “review” article before, and I don’t get the point. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that it’s claim is entirely true and this simulation model was bug-ridden to the point of uselessness (which is doesn’t seem to be, see above)

Then what? The disease is real! It exists outside of the computer. People are really dying. The spread before the lockdowns was accelerating in real life, not just in a simulation. That’s what causing the “destruction of billions of pounds of value and collateral damage to healthcare capability”.

Suppsoe the code had been in version control. Do you think the disease would have gone away or something?


Charlie W 05.11.20 at 1:09 pm

“people have made a judgement call that the benefits of being able to travel outweigh the costs of road death”

It’s a side point, but no, nobody has ‘made a judgement call’ on this, ever. The situation on roads has emerged over decades. Externalities extend beyond death, disability and injury to include the health risks of sedentary behaviour, the stress of driving, the pollution of driving, the global warming contribution, etc. Nonetheless, people ignore most of that (after all, some of the evidence is more recent), whole populations are habituated, and it is politically very difficult to get much traction on the issue at all.


Dipper 05.11.20 at 2:20 pm

@ faustusnotes – the formula for herd immunity is well known as  1 − 1/R0. The Covid native R0 is generally thought to be about 3 so that leads to herd immunity at around 70% ish. Measels has a much higher R0 and so vaccination of around 95% is required to achieve herd immunity. But you studied Physics I think so you know this.

If I was going to choose someone to follow for guidance then Matt Ridley would not be my ideal choice based on the Northern rock experience and his owning coal mines, but I think he does a decent job of surveying particular areas of study whether that be climate change or pandemics and produces thoughtful articles.

@ zamfir – the Ferguson team has history, specifically Foot and Mouth when they predicted widespread epidemic unless extreme measures were taken. We have no way of knowing whether the measures were justified.

The disagreement between Ferguson and Swedish epidemiologist has been in the news recently. The uncertainty around what causes high levels of epidemic with Covid means results are inconclusive but there isn’t really any evidence that Sweden with its soft social distancing is exceptional in results amongst European countries, and the lower economic hit Sweden has taken may well turn out to be highly advantageous for Sweden.

By definition we don’t get the chance to verify models on pandemics with repeat runs in reality. But we need a model to help guide policy, and at that point it would help if the model was at least computationally robust, was clear, had proper controls, had clear evidence that each of the many inputs generated sensible outputs etc. I don’t see what people gain by not having proper controls round things, and they lose credibility by not having them.


bianca steele 05.11.20 at 2:53 pm

I’m not sure it’s soon enough to say what the graph shows. The slope of Sweden’s curve is less than the US’s. It’s less than Switzerland’s at its steepest. We don’t know if or when it will plateau out. I understand the authorities had goals for this move that aren’t being met in the event, but that’s probably a different question.

It strikes me there is less talk about how Singapore, which at one point was the poster boy for excellent response, is apparently failing to manage the outbreak there.

COVID-19 lacks a lot of the characteristics that have made previous epidemics controllable, but it’s beginning to seem that it may have others that make it less scary than it seemed at first. I hope so. Beyond travel, people are going to want to – need to – see a dentist, have a melanoma biopsied, get their blood pressure medication rechecked. People’s glasses will break. Ovens and dishwashers will break (in MA I think repairmen are allowed to operate, but I’m sure people are putting off repairs as long as possible on the quite reasonable principle that more distancing is always good). We’ve seen, not only a rise in home deaths, but a statistical underreporting of heart attacks relative to the usual value, suggesting people aren’t getting medical help for those either.


Zamfir 05.11.20 at 3:05 pm

carl says: ” actually for people 70+ years with exiing health conditions, that is not true. and most covid victims are male, which on average have shorter lives than women. furthermore, we tend to count ‘good quality years’.

Of course we should protect old people. the question that will come up is: in countries with herd immunity (if that will ever exist) it will be less important to keep old people away from others”

One study claimed 9 years of life lost on average, when accounting for all such factors. I cannot vouch for the quality of that exact number, and it might be depending on location. It does seem roughly in line with the wider reports – it kills mostly people who skew older, but it is absolutely not concentrated to people on their death bed.I am not a great fan QALY-like calculations. But even in such a framework, losing 9 years of life is a lot!

Some wider factors to take into account: my understanding is that younger, healthier people survive because they can make it through weeks of hellish intensive care. Once the numbers grow and hospitlas overflow, the lack of intensive care means that healthier pople die more as well. And of course, it is worthwhile to spare people from that hell, and its associated effects later in life, even if they survive. If you want to count QALYs, you have to count those as well.

When you say, “protecting old people”, what do you have in mind? There does not seem to be a proven method to keep the disease away from old people. It still finds it way into nursing homes, and it spreads there oh so easily. And that is current still-low levels of spread. AFAICT, the only currently known way to protect old people, is to keep the virus suppressed in the entire population.


Omega Centauri 05.11.20 at 3:34 pm

To Amplify on Zamfir. Anyone with any notion of how math works and can recognize a differential equation, when given the case fatality rate and the fact that the virus is highly contagious could by back of the envelope reasoning estimate similar death tolls. I found it astounding that it took that simulation to convince the powers that be of the near-obvious conclusions.


MisterMr 05.11.20 at 3:38 pm

@Dipper 36

I understand that many people don’t like the idea of herd immunity and favour a lockdown, but in the absence of a vaccine I don’t know realistically what the alternative is to a progressive lifting and changing social habits.

My opinion is that the correct alternative is:

1) strict lockdown until active cases become very few;

2) at that point relax partially the lockdown, but pump up contact tracing a lot, so to avoid a new large scale spread of covid-19. This is because I think that when the number of cases is too high contact tracing becomes umpractical.

3) lift the lockdown very slowly and gradually because, if previous experience is a guide, if the virus starts to spread fast we will realize it only a pair of weeks later, which is a problem because the virus expands exponentially.

Obviously at some point the lockdown has to be relaxed, but the point is that we can relax it only when the number of active cases is very low. Incidentially here in Italy the lockdown was partially relaxed starting from May 4 (before may 4, I couldn’t legally exit my city, since then I can leave the city but not the “regione” – Italy is divided in 22 regioni, like Lombardy or Sicily). I fear that the Italian government moved too fast, but let’s hope I’m wrong.
The point is not IF at some undiscloded point in the future the lockdown will be eased and then lifted, the problem is WHEN we can lift it, and it seems to me that in most countries it’s still too early.


notGoodenough 05.11.20 at 4:57 pm

I accept the point Charlie W @ 49 makes, and retract my oversimplification. I should, perhaps, have said:

It is possible (so some degree) to evaluate the approximate cost of road death. It is possible to evaluate (to some degree) the approximate benefit of transportation. It is (in principle) possible to make a decision about whether or not the costs of driving outweigh the benefits on an individual basis[1].

Of course, this is a little more complicated and obscures the point I wanted to make, which is that many people have made an effort to make driving safer and not just accepted that X people will die a year. Which is arguably one reason why seatbelts are mandatory (in my area).

[1] I have done so, which is one reason why I don’t drive (on an individual and personal basis, the problems which come from driving a car are, for me, not outweighed by the benefits).


notGoodenough 05.11.20 at 5:47 pm

bianca steele @ 51

I’m not sure it’s soon enough to say what the graph shows.

My understanding is that it is not easy to know the best way to respond to a pandemic. Often the data is being collected ongoing with some lag, and – as many epidemiologists have pointed out with a certain degree of weary resignation – if you enact measures which are very successful it will look like you’ve overreacted anyway. The issue is, of course, not taking any action at all has – in the past – led to rather bad outcomes which, when combined with arguments about flattening the curve and giving time to study, would seem to make some degree of action more useful than none.

I would agree that it is likely too soon to make a definitive proclamation about what the best strategy is for dealing with covid-19. This will be complicated as there are many factors which would effect this (and, apparently at least some which we don’t yet understand). However, in science we do not make definitive proclamations of truth – we propose models to explain reality, tentatively and potentially subject to revision, the confidence in which is proportional to the evidence to support. All of which to say is that while more data is usually useful and helps improve accuracy of prediction, people who study this sort of thing for a living appear to have enough data to make models which have confidence levels and can be evaluated based on their success. These seem to show that enacting measures helps with controlling the spread and slowing transmission which are, typically speaking, desirable objectives.

It strikes me there is less talk about how Singapore, which at one point was the poster boy for excellent response, is apparently failing to manage the outbreak there.

My understanding – and please do correct me if I am wrong – is that the response in Singapore has indeed been very successful for the majority of Singaporeans. I have been given to believe that the recent outbreaks have mostly concentrated amongst migrant workers living in dorms. While it is important to understand the outbreak (and I am in no way saying that migrant workers should be ignored) I believe it might be possible to ascribe outbreaks amongst some of the least cared for and most vulnerable people as perhaps resulting from them living in a situation which makes enacting distancing measures much more difficult, and maybe from having less access to the healthcare and testing than non-migrant workers. I don’t say this with a high degree of confidence (and I certainly wouldn’t see it as a good or acceptable thing), but merely suggest that there may be reason to believe the Singapore response succeeded (to a large extent) at what it was intended to do, and that if migrant workers are the main source of outbreak perhaps it is because they are not – generally speaking – able to avail themselves of the same degree of security as other sectors of society. This doesn’t however, seem to be limited to Singapore – I believe Chris Bretram would likely be able to give some insight (and probably a fair degree of righteous anger) to the topic of why this is not uncommon.

“it’s beginning to seem that it may have others that make it less scary than it seemed at first.”

I’m not entirely sure that that is true. I have seen a lot of people making comparisons to the flu. The issue is, of course, that (at least in my country) what we typically think of as “the flu” is usually not actually the flu (we generally use it as a catch all term, including what are relatively harmless colds). Getting the flu (which appears to be less problematic than covid 19) is already a bad thing to happen (which is why there are often campaigns to convince people to take their flu shots). There is good evidence to believe covid 19 kills, and that it can have an impact on long term health. I’m confident you’ll agree that that is already concerning enough to warrant a methodical and evidence based response.

I think one issue I have with the framing often used by people who wish to see the measures relaxed is that it is typically presented as “either we relax measures, or everyone has to stay in isolation indefinitely” (I don’t accuse you of this, but note that I have seen this framing before). The problem is, we already don’t all live in isolation – essential workers, after all, still work, and I am able to buy groceries and even use public transport and go into my (not particularly essential) work (providing I abide by the measures required to do so, such as wearing a mask, etc.). The argument is, therefore, not “should there be relaxing of measures?” but rather when and to what degree.

Some countries are taking an incremental approach – relaxing little by little, and seeing what effect is has (presumably tightening again if there is significant re-emergence). I can think of worse approaches.


carl d 05.11.20 at 5:56 pm

Zamfir: you write ” the only currently known way to protect old people, is to keep the virus suppressed in the entire population.” I have a lot of sympathy for this view, but the virus is so contagious it may not work, according to some researchers. unless you are in lockdown for a very long time. if you are in lockdown for a very long time, you have to accept the fact that saving your parents means risking your childrens’ future. My students are about to garduate and their prospects don’t look too good… I have a father who is 70+ with underlying conditions. of course I want him to have 5-10 more good years. but at any cost? I think we cannot avoid this discussion. we current only count lives saved per dollar when we put up speeding limits and fences for moose/boar. but this issue will not go away


carl d 05.11.20 at 6:02 pm

It may also be interesting to know: There is a discussion in Sweden that more people in elderly homes die here than in our neighbouring countries due to the fact that we have privatized elderly homes, leading to worse conditions for the ‘customers’, and less educated staff (often immigrants). the link below discusses this and also claims that owners fight against unions’ demands for better equipment, also under the pandemi. We Swedes are poor at handling such issues as we tend to believe everyone wants to do good, and do not like conflicts.


Zamfir 05.11.20 at 6:09 pm

I’m not sure it’s soon enough to say what the graph shows. The slope of Sweden’s curve is less than the US’s. It’s less than Switzerland’s at its steepest. We don’t know if or when it will plateau out”
Take a look at the link of John H, it has better information. The peak in Sweden is clearly past, with IC patients dropping since early April, and the peak in deaths was about a week later.

The decline in Sweden is slower than in other places. Eyballing, new IC patients are about half the peak, while in France for example it’s 1/6, in the Netherlands 1/5 (these countries because I could quickly find comparable numbers)


Tm 05.11.20 at 9:39 pm

We really don’t yet have enough data to judge Sweden’s containment strategy compared to Switzerland’s, for example. Sweden so far has reported fewer infections but twice as many fatalities. But the excess mortality reported on EuroMOMO looks similar. I think it’s too soon to draw strong conclusions.

The papers here take a lot of interest in Sweden and have reported that the economic impact in Sweden isn’t much softer than in Switzerland or Germany. (https://www.nzz.ch/international/schweden-und-das-coronavirus-wie-erfolgreich-ist-die-strategie-ld.1555269) That too will take time to evaluate with hard data. But clearly, if Sweden’s measures are working reasonably well, it is because most people stay home voluntarily. Which still means that restaurants etc are losing business.

Switzerland btw has loosened most restrictions as of today, after eight weeks. And Switzerland too has to some extent emphasized voluntary measures, for example people have been free to leave their homes. The government has argued that it is better to appeal to people’s sense of responsibility than to resort to coercive measures.


Chris Bertram 05.11.20 at 9:48 pm

Rupert Beale explains, among other things, why the idea of herd immunity through infection is unlikely for Coronaviruses. So if you’re betting the house (or the mass deaths of others) on this option, please stop.



Alex SL 05.11.20 at 10:27 pm

If the concern about restrictions is for the economic of the young and poor instead of “freedom”, then the economic argument for restrictions can, as far as I understand, be summarised as follows (but note IANAE):

If the hospital system gets overwhelmed, many people will die, including younger people who would have survived intubation or other treatments but cannot get them under these circumstances. Quite apart from concerns about their welfare as such, people are a massive economic investment and asset to a society, given that they require c. 16-25 years to produce before they are useful.
If the pandemic is allowed to spread, most people will become afraid and self-restrict anyway. So you would get nearly all of the economic hit that you would have got under government-enforced restrictions anyway, plus unnecessary deaths.
As others have pointed out, severe restrictions for a short time would be more efficient than lenient restrictions that need to remain longer until infections have been controlled. In the latter case you get more economic damage for less avoided deaths.
Much of the economic suffering from the restrictions could be avoided if the political will was there. It is no law of nature that casual workers have to take the hit, or that small businesses have to go bankrupt. They could be provided with money to survive the crisis, and the hit could be taken by those of us who have enough money that they would notice hardly any change in their living standards if a quarter of it disappeared. If the political will was there.


Alex SL 05.11.20 at 10:27 pm

Darn, those should have been bullet points. Sorry.


Faustusnotes 05.11.20 at 11:10 pm

Dipper the r0 of this virus is bigger than 3, but let’s take Ferguson’s word for it and set it at 2.5, so we need 60% of the population vaccinated to get herd immunity. Your proposal is to get that 60% by allowing them to be infected. That’s 30 million people in England. Do you know how many new cases a week you will be seeing when you hit the threshold? Here’s a clue: the number doubles every 4 days. You want to keep doubling it every four days tilll the cumulative total is 30 million. I’ve shown on my blog what that means: you’re talking hundreds of thousands of new cases every week. Your country reached a maximum of about 50,000 cases a week and your national death rate has doubled. But you think a good policy is to triple that, at least.

But yeah, taking advice from a climate denying failed banister is “not ideal “….


J-D 05.12.20 at 12:47 am

But yeah, taking advice from a climate denying failed banister is “not ideal “….

It would be a severe reflection on somebody to have failed as a banister.


Collin Street 05.12.20 at 12:47 am

Wasn’t Dipper one of the people who thought my, “actually, 99% reliable electricity isn’t an economy-ending problem” claim was ludicrous on the face of it?

“1% electricity failure is intolerable but 1% population failure is fine” … is, look, it’s insane. We can talk about exactly what the particular patterns of failure here represent in terms of underlying structural weakness, but we can’t pretend that it’s healthy.

I mean, I could be wrong and I apologise, but… not that much? “1% population failure is fine” remains distanced-from-reality even if I’m wrong about the “but 1% electricity failure isn’t!”.


hix 05.12.20 at 1:42 am

” The problem is, we already don’t all live in isolation – essential workers, after all, still work, and I am able to buy groceries and even use public transport and go into my (not particularly essential) work (providing I abide by the measures required to do so, such as wearing a mask, etc.)”

Crucial point. No one is in a real absolute lockdown in the west. To what degree and with which emphasice we are constraint – amount of authoritarian control, ban on private or work related contacts, schools etc. varies. In a way it is arbitrary to classify Sweden as the far off special case, when it is many ways just one end of spectrum at which e.g. Germany might be closer to Sweden than Italy.

Worth adding that there is a strong bias towards favouring work and short term gdp over private contacts everywhere, which annoys me to no end.


nastywoman 05.12.20 at 5:52 am

and about: we really don’t have enough data yet –
don’t we have ”the data” already – that every country – which reacted as fast as possible with testing and containment – and where the health system was ”prepared” with enough beds – personal and equipment – did a lot better than –


and I really would like to know how many deaths – did it cost my homeland the US?
one day –
one week –
one month of inaction?


Hidari 05.12.20 at 6:53 am


From that article.

‘How quickly a vaccine can be rolled out is another matter. I have a bet with a colleague at the Scripps Institute. He thinks it will be four years’.

Well let’s hope he is right, because 18 months is an unprecedented period to essentially put the economy on hold, and if it’s 4 years, then you are essentially talking about an effect on the economy of a small war (or a large one). This is assuming the virus doesn’t mutate, of course. How successful the vaccine will be is another question.


Jim Buck 05.12.20 at 10:19 am

Re: @38

“Out of interest, my Dipper-esque relative has proposed that the UK’s response has been hampered because pro-EU scientists are deliberately misinforming Boris so as to undermine him as revenge for Brexit. Is this a common theory amongst the Daily Mail crowd, or is it a conspiracy theory of one?”

It would not surprise me to learn that Mr D is a subscriber to this:



J-D 05.12.20 at 12:55 pm


I clicked on that link, and the first thing I saw was a headline beginning ‘Your Daily Betrayal’.

I think that tells me as much as I need to know.


Dipper 05.12.20 at 1:47 pm

I’d missed notGoodenough‘s kind comments @38.

“Driving on a road is something which is often necessary to get from one location to another “ it isn’t necessary to get to one location from another except in extreme conditions as we are demonstrating currently, so to that extent it is a choice to grant people the freedom to travel by road and they do that knowingly accepting the risk, just as going outside and meeting g people knowingly involves taking a risk of catching Covid. Two things do not have to be identical to have similarities of note.

re Neil Ferguson. He has a model which has been cited round the world as having been instrumental in putting the world in lockdown. Apparently the decision to enter into Lockdown did not rely on his must-factor stochastic model. If that is the case, why fund it? If making decisions about epidemics just requires the ability to do a bit of simple maths and common sense, then why bother having epidemiologists at all? The conversation of “We are locking down on the basis of the evidence provided by this computer model”, “your model is rubbish”, “we would probably have locked down anyway”, does not play well for the person with the computer model.

And the final ‘out of interest’ bit – Dipper is like X. X is stupid, therefore Dipper is stupid, is in itself a transparently stupid argument. It is a typical diversionary ploy when you have no actual answers.

Faustusnotes – Johnson clearly stated early on the intention to reduce the spread to enable the health services to cope. Not to let it rip at some astronomical rate. But again, you knew that and simply constructed a straw man to knock it down. Bravo.

@ Chris Bertram 61 – and? What next? Are you going to teach next year? Do you plan to get paid to effectively provide no education for a few years? Pointing out that options available to you in the middle of a crisis are not good ones isn’t really getting us anywhere. And given that the UK government was acting on scientific advice it is nice of Rupert Beale to throw his colleagues under a bus.


notGoodenough 05.12.20 at 5:18 pm

Dipper @ 72

A response:

”so to that extent it is a choice to grant people the freedom to travel by road and they do that knowingly accepting the risk, just as going outside and meeting g people knowingly involves taking a risk of catching Covid.”

But, as I already pointed out, if we accept the framing that driving is a result of cost benefit analysis (which Charlie W has pointed out isn’t really true) and that the benefits to letting covid19 spread outweigh the costs (which hasn’t been demonstrated) there is still a major issue:

As I said before, we don’t just let people drive – there are a lot of rules in place to maximise safety. You have to take a test and prove proficiency. You have to wear a seatbelt. You cannot exceed speed limits (which are reduced in urban environments, to prevent accidents with bystanders).

If we extend the analogy, it can be argued that lockdowns are akin to speed limits – they don’t prevent you from going outside (most European countries allow for daily exercise, getting groceries, and various sectors already at or returning to work) but limit the potential harm by slowing the spread (in the same way speed limits do not prevent you from driving, but minimise harm if you accidently plough into a pedestrian).

So even if I grant you far more than you have demonstrated, there is still a very good argument for measures (including “lockdowns”).

I hope the analogy makes my point a little clearer.

“Neil Ferguson. He has a model which has been cited round the world as having been instrumental in putting the world in lockdown.”

Please demonstrate your assertion. Because even UK scientists (surely those most likely to be influenced by a UK scientist) disagree[1].

Moreover, I will offer an additional point which you may want to consider. Lockdowns have been previously employed in Asia as a result of the SARS epidemic. Are you going to suggest that Neil Ferguson’s model is so instrumental to lockdown policies that it has been a key part of influencing Asian pandemic policies for 17 years?

If not, then perhaps it is possible that lockdown measures come a result of general consensus amongst experts and not because of one individual. And if that is the case, whatever issues you may have with the Ferguson model are irrelevant – even if we assume he is completely wrong and his model is complete nonsense (something you have failed to demonstrate in any way), if I measure the speed at which a tennis ball falls incorrectly it does not invalidate gravitational theory.

As David Hume taught us, the confidence in a proposition should be proportional to the evidence in support. It isn’t enough to attack the claim lockdowns are effective – you have to demonstrate that they are ineffective by making your own arguments and supporting them with evidence.

”The conversation of “We are locking down on the basis of the evidence provided by this computer model”, “your model is rubbish”, “we would probably have locked down anyway”, does not play well for the person with the computer model.”

Science is, ultimately speaking, a collaborative endeavour. Standing on the shoulders of giants, and all that. I can’t think of any major hypotheses or models which are accepted on the basis of just one person – at the very least independent confirmation is required, and often multiple lines of evidence from multiple different groups (often each trying to demonstrate problems in the hypothesis) before it becomes widely accepted.

No one person dominates an entire field, so saying Ferguson’s model is not the sole (or even primary) for lockdowns being adopted everywhere they have actually says very little about the person with the model – it says a lot about how science is typically carried out.

That you don’t seem to realise that multiple experts, relying on multiple lines of evidence, coming to similar conclusions is not only strengthens validity of lockdowns – but is also how science in general is carried out – is bizarre.

“Dipper is like X. X is stupid,”

Firstly, and I will say this as mildly as I can given the circumstances, do not insult my relatives. Not only did I not say X is stupid (in many ways I think they are very intelligent), I resent quite considerably your doing so. It is pretty rude of you, and I think – in the unlikely event you were ever to meet them – you owe them an apology.

My point was not actually trying to make some bizarre argument. It was, in fact, exactly what I said it was – I was curious if what they believed is a common view amongst people with similar media consumption, or if it was not. Apparently you think it is a ridiculous argument – that would seem to imply it is not widely accepted, and not something they’ve got from the media. In which case, you have answered my question – and the insult was not necessary.

”It is a typical diversionary ploy when you have no actual answers.”

I have already given you some responses. If you don’t think they are convincing, you are entitled to do so. I think they are, and are major holes in your analogies and accusations.

Firstly, you have yet to address the idea that we regulate the harms of driving – so surely “regulating” the harms of a pandemic (by trying to reduce the number of people coming into close proximity) is not ridiculous.

Secondly, you have not demonstrated that the Ferguson model is wrong, nor have you demonstrated that without it lockdowns (where adopted) would not be a key measure by general consensus of the experts of those countries.

It might be worth considering those points further.

[1] Ferguson has stepped down after personal misconduct (breaking lockdown rules) not due to any demonstration of scientific misconduct. These UK scientists make a response, which essentially says that he has been one voice amongst many – exactly what I would expect and hope for in any good field of science (which should rely on evidence and robust discussion, and many results from many groups independently confirming each other).

The letter can be found (as of 12/05/2020) here, and is signed by more than 25 prominent scientists from relevant fields:



Tm 05.12.20 at 6:20 pm

If Dipper does provide meaningful evidence for his claim about Neil Ferguson (a name I hadn’t even heard before in this context), I will revise my opinion that his comments are absolutely not worth engaging with.

Holding my breath…


Dipper 05.12.20 at 6:37 pm

@ notGoodenough

thanks for the considered reply

“If we extend the analogy, it can be argued that lockdowns are akin to speed limits – they don’t prevent you from going outside … but limit the potential harm by slowing the spread”

That was exactly the UK governments ‘Herd Immunity’ policy. That we should reduce the rate of spread and avoid the spread reaching vulnerable people so health services are not overwhelmed and Herd Immunity builds. That now seems to have changed into a scheme to prevent any deaths at all, which is fairly impossible in the way that avoiding any deaths at all is impossible in modern road travel. But all these policies, as you note, are a regions of a continuum.

I’ve looked at your reference on Ferguson, but it doesn’t help your or their case. It is not true that has discretion was used to undermine the scientific case, it was the code review articles that undermined the scientific case. The letter states “while Prof Ferguson is undoubtedly an influential scientist”. Well, I think people are entitled to ask why someone whose model fails to meet what the ‘professional’ software industry regard as basic standards is influential. As I said above, it is the Scientific establishment who are undermined by the criticism of Ferguson’s code, not (just) Ferguson. If you are the head of something your job is largely to uphold standards, because if you don’t then why should anyone else? So senior people in academia need to think hard right now about the standards of coding they expect. And the question of whether it is ‘wrong’ misses the point. We believe in science because of the process, the rigorous experimental testing that is undergone. Without proper process we have no reason for believing that anything is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

I don’t know whether the lockdown is necessary. There is some evidence (ironically from Ferguson’s model) that getting R0 below 1 was achieved by the early hand-washing and social distancing advice and lockdown hasn’t achieved anything extra. But conclusive evidence is hard so everything is a judgement.

As for your relative, the case you gave is a conspiracy theory. Lots of people seem to believe conspiracy theories, but I don’t in general. The belief that anyone who disagrees with you has fallen for a conspiracy theory is in itself a kind of conspiracy theory. I think I’m entitled to be annoyed at the suggestion that I fall for conspiracy theories. I may be wrong but do read quite widely and try to be critical.

I’m getting very pissed off on the tone of the UK press and much Labour criticism, that the UK government is useless and incompetent etc. If one were to choose a UK political to criticise then surely it would be Sadiq Khan. As mayor of London he has overseen a reduction in the services that forced people onto packed tubes, and failed to provide PPE for transport workers resulting in higher death rates for them than the general population. But not a question or word of criticism is going his way. It is almost as if journalists and politicians are using a crisis to advance their own personal political views rather than any serious analysis.

I don’t think there is a magic set of policies out there. It’s a crisis, so by definition we are outside the business-as-usual envelope and making stuff up as we go along. The notion that had the UK locked down earlier thousand of lives would have been saved for instance is just supposition. I have a friend who was calling for shutting down international’s travel (to his MP) at the end of January, but tens of thousands of Britains were in Italy skiing, or in Spain playing golf, etc, and probably had the virus then. Were we seriously going to quarantine 50,000 people for two weeks?


faustusnotes 05.13.20 at 1:05 am

Dipper, I haven’t constructed any straw men, I have simply pointed out the consequences of Johnson’s policy. You want to reach 60% of the population infected (a number you confected yourself, not me), but you seem to think that you can get there without a growing daily number of new cases. Just as a reminder, to get to 200,000 cases (0.1% of your “Herd immunity” number) you got up to 10,000 new cases a day. How many new cases a day do you think are needed to get to 30 million infections? If you want to do it slowly you could do it at 10,000 a day, with the benefit of some magic policy to slow its growth. If so, you’ll have the epidemic as it was its peak a month ago, happening constantly for months on end. Is that your preference? Do you think you can contain the numbers to 10,000 a day for months on end?

This should be a teachable moment for you Dipper. You can see in real time the consequences of your preferred policies, and its awful. But instead of recognizing that your idea is crazy you just double down, stick your fingers in your ears, and pretend that nothing that is true is actually happening.

I mean look at your silly point about cars. You raised it! I pointed out that the annual deaths from road fatalities is two days of this covid-19 epidemic, and you just ignore this apparently minor point to try and push the same argument a little more. These are numbers, Dipper, right here, in your face, and you simply refuse to even consider them.

Really, looking at the ruins around you, you should be able to begin to think that maybe your ability to do risk assessments is broken. But you won’t even consider it!


Chetan Murthy 05.13.20 at 5:54 am

Jesus, Dipper really has derailed what could have been an educational conversation. I mean, Carl D, I might disagree with, but he’s not militantly anti-rational-thought. Ah, well. I gave up trying to read some way down the comment thread. Congratulations, Dipper.


Chris Bertram 05.13.20 at 6:55 am

@Dipper writes

@ Chris Bertram 61 – and? What next? Are you going to teach next year? Do you plan to get paid to effectively provide no education for a few years? Pointing out that options available to you in the middle of a crisis are not good ones isn’t really getting us anywhere. And given that the UK government was acting on scientific advice it is nice of Rupert Beale to throw his colleagues under a bus.

Beale’s point (among others) is that betting on “herd immunity” and incurring the deaths of large numbers of people is particularly stupid if infection from CV19 does not confer long-term immunity as coronaviruses typically don’t. If that point has merit (and he is a senior virologist) then I don’t think he should avoid making it because other scientists are proceeding from a different assumption. You characterize doing so as “throwing his colleagues under a bus” thus demonstrating a odd view of how scientific critique should proceed.

At present I am not providing “effectively …. no education” but running online lectures, classes and assessments. That isn’t as good as the in-person sort of education but it is often harder and more labour intensive, and academics face doing so next year with far fewer teaching assistants and adjuncts than normal and with the prospect of pay cuts to get universities past this financial hole.


hix 05.13.20 at 7:46 am

At this point, i´m allowed to move however i want even in Bavaria which had the most authoritarian response in Germany. I am merely banned from having private(!) contacts with people from more than one household in open air and entirely banned from meating people at home. My impression suggests a huge amount of carelessness among those in particular that never had a real lock down at any point because they kept doing their job even during the stricktest lockdown phase without any changes to procedures – e.g. those working in construction. There is no real control system like the autocertification form in Italy. So if i wanted to break the rules, short of a huge party there is little realistic risk of getting caught and even if, fines are not particular harsh. Our local small municipality parliament could not stand the temptation to meat in person with 20 visitors allowed. Since all shopping is allowed now, the city center at the neighbouring city appears to be packed to a point where there is no way to keep a 1,5 meter distance (not going to do a personal observation on this). Stupid of course all that


Zamfir 05.13.20 at 8:40 am

Carl d says

I have a lot of sympathy for this view, but the virus is so contagious it may not work, according to some researchers. […] I think we cannot avoid this discussion. we current only count lives saved per dollar when we put up speeding limits and fences for moose/boar.

I am not sure if money/life is a very useful framework here. We don’t have a widely agreed value to aim for, we cannot tell for specific measures what they cost, except very roughly. And we cannot tell very well how much lives they save – partially because we lack detailed knowledge, and also because the impacts multiply – the same measure has a different effect depending on what other measures are taken. And of course, the relation between money and importance is tenuous at best.

There appears to be a wide (public !) consensus that “keeping the health system functioning” is worth an enormous cost. That is about more than corona patients, which is why all the CFR discussion are somewhat beside the point.

Once you accept that goal, we have to prevent fast spreading. Probably slow spread as well. Then alot of the costs are – there is room to optimize which measures are best, but there is not much to trade off about more or less risk for the elderly. Too much risk for the elderly = too much risk for the entire health care system, unless we were to decide not to treat corona at all.

If we accept stabilization as the upper bound of acceptable outcomes, then there is not much point in stabilizing at a high level. If anything, the economic cost of that is higher (less room for error, less effext for contact tracing, so all othe measures have to ramped up)

This seems the logic in most of Europe now. Had measures to bring the numbers down, then gradual release towards stabilization. Preferably better than stabilization, but continuous slow decline . The cost of fast decline though seems very high. The countries with harshest measures do not show much fast decline.


Tm 05.13.20 at 10:10 am

More data regarding elites (governors) vs the public:

“Many state governors have seen their popularity — and approval ratings — soar since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. But according to a new poll, how popular individual governors are seems to depend on how quickly they took steps to prevent the spread of the virus and whether they’ve thus far delayed reopening.“

It rarely if ever makes sense to talk about „the elites“ as if they were a single homogeneous entity. It is one thing when political activists resort to that kind of simplification for rhetorical effect, but when academic scholars talk like that, it should really raise alarm bells.


carl d 05.13.20 at 10:20 am

Zamfir: yes, keeping the helthcare system functioning is the key thing also in Sweden. the estimation is that the Swedish measures are enough for achieving this purpose, and according to the authorities no more than 90 % of the ICU beds have been occupied at any time. In fact, one of the critiques against the Imperial paper has been that they understimated the potential to scale up ICU units and healthcare.

I am not convinced Sweden does everything right, but I do think they (the edipemiologists in charge) have thought things through, are transparent, and admit mistakes (they did not expect the fast spread in elederly homes, which is the reason for the high mortality rates). Their argument that countries that have practiced total lockdowns do not have good plans for how to get out of them also seems to be vindicated, at least to some extent. and they also claim it is hard to go back to lockdown mode as people simply cannot endure this. We will see if their arguments for keeping schools open for grades 1-9 will make sense. soon we will have mora data in will now better…


Tm 05.13.20 at 10:23 am

Hix, what about the Maskenpflicht? Isn’t that pretty strong?


Dipper 05.13.20 at 10:28 am

@ faustusnotes

I’ve been having similar conversations with other people about the numbers. Lots of people are having these conversations. The evidence isn’t really clear at the moment, for instance there is quite a lot of evidence that young people just don’t get the disease to any notable extent, in that young people who have clearly been exposed to the virus never had symptoms and don’t have antibodies, so according to this idea the antibody count in the general population is an underestimate of the total exposure rate, and furthermore the numbers of young people dying from Covid is likely to be less than the number of young people dying in car accidents no matter how fast it spreads.

You say that we will take years to reach herd immunity but some are saying that Stockholm for instance may have already reached it. You say that you were pointing out the consequences of Johnson’s policy but Sweden have implemented what was Johnson’s policy and the consequences you predicted simply haven’t happened.

I know South Korea did lots of testing and more or less eliminated the virus, but I understand the outbreak was in a Christian sect and so was easily containable, and just because they did lots of testing and the outbreak stopped doesn’t mean the outbreak stopped because of the testing. And now it has resurfaced in Seoul. Not in a Christian sect where members are easily identifiable, but in nightclubs linked to the LGBT community where many are desperate to remain anonymous. So maybe but isn’t time to start giving the final scores just yet.


nastywoman 05.13.20 at 10:31 am


At this point, I´m allowed to move however i want even in Baden Württemberg which had a similar response as Bayern – and I really wouldn’t want to call it a ”authoritarian” response in Germany.
I’m now allowed to have private(!) contacts with people from more than one household and yes – there seems to be some ”carelessness” among those in particular that never had a real lock down at any point because they kept doing their job.
BUT everybody I know – who kept on doing his jobs tried NOT to be as careless as for example – some – just SOME of our relatives in Lalaland – who told US – on the telephone – laughing – they don’t care a flying f…

AND that’s the thing – Right? There is no real control system here in Baden Württemberg – like the autocertification form in Italy. BUT as I spend a lot of time each year with my friends in Verona – and yes also in Bergamo – there also never was ”a system” in Germany where you just can’t get out of hugging every one of your Italian friends – three – four or even five times – each time you meet them.

AND I really miss that right now – beeing under lockdown in Germany –
AND I never ever will blame my Italian friends – that partying like Pazzo after a Soccer Win – overwhelmed their Heart Care System.

AND sometimes I really have a bad conscious that I’m so tremendously lucky – being lock-downed in Germany – as I also could be in my homeland the US right now – in a country where a Science Denying Idiot is responsible for so many Deaths of my fellow Americans – that we we all call him ”Prospero”


because he didn’t do what the Germans did – TESTING and CONTAINING the virus RIGHT AWAY.
And so –
YES! – ”since all shopping is allowed now, the (medieval) city center is busy – but NOT packed to a point, where there is no way to keep a 1,5 meter distance –
and I observe it every day – more and more hopefully – and joyfully… AND NOT ”Stupid of course all that” –
As how would you say in Bayrisch: ”Azaopft isch” – again!


Raven Onthill 05.13.20 at 11:03 am

John Carmack on the Imperial College model: “That was my fear — what if the code turned out to be a horror show, making all the simulations questionable? I can’t vouch for the actual algorithms, but the software engineering seems fine.” – https://twitter.com/ID_AA_Carmack/status/1254878975459045381?s=20

There’s always people who say “I could have done it better.” Perhaps they could have, but they didn’t do it.


roger gathmann 05.13.20 at 12:59 pm

82, what vindicates the “failure” of Denmark, Finland, Germany and Norway in their step by step opening? If anything, those openings vindicate just the opposite – Sweden, among a cohort with a lesser epidemic problem (due to being less vulnerable to the kind of global traffic that affects Italy, Spain, France, the UK, Ireland) did the worst job of protecting its population, and it is continuing to have an increase in deaths and infections as other countries which locked down early are able to open up in relative safety. Seems a complete disaster. Sweden, however, is a country that is nationalistically committed to the Sweden must be right ideology. A pity.

PS – I like the idea that the “oopsy” about the decimation of old people was recognized by the planners, hence was part of the general success. It takes the old logic of British generals in WWI: yes, we did take perhaps 100,000 more casualties on the Sommes front, but we gave the Jerries something to think about, we did!


Zamfir 05.13.20 at 1:15 pm

@Carl:I live in the Netherlands,which had after Sweden perhaps the weakest countermeasures in place. And the epidemiologist pushed for weaker measures yet (keeping schools open). They got a very public reaction from the medical community, after which measures were stepped up one notch.

At that time, I was highly critical of the epidemiologist. They had clearly been too late in asking for increases measures, and then they also asked for weak tea.

In hindsight, I still think they were late. But they seem to have been pretty on point on the measures – the weak stuff is doing the heavy lifting, and the harsh lockdowns seem to be adding only marginal further improvement.

The disease is declining noticeably faster than in Sweden though. If that is caused by the school closures, then I am happy we did those. The Sweish path strikes me as somewhat too close to the edge…


notGoodenough 05.13.20 at 3:26 pm

Dipper @ 75

You are most welcome, and thank you for continuing to provide your perspectives – while I think we fundamentally disagree on many topics, I am interested in hearing what you have to say.

Regarding conspiracy theory

This was the least important part of my post, as it was a quick question intended to get information to help me understand where this conspiracy theory was coming from:

“The belief that anyone who disagrees with you has fallen for a conspiracy theory is in itself a kind of conspiracy theory.”

If I’d said “anyone who opposes lockdown believes this conspiracy theory” or even “Dipper only opposes the lockdown because he believes this conspiracy theory” you would have a point. But I didn’t. I said “I know someone who consumes similar media, they believe this conspiracy theory, can you give insight as to where this may be coming from by letting me know if it is something you’ve seen in your overlapping media consumption?”. That doesn’t imply you believe it, it asks if you’ve seen it anywhere before.

To make an analogy if you said to me “I know a pro-EU person, they believe that Boris Johnson only support Brexit because he despises croissants, is this something which crops up in pro-EU media like The Guardian?” I wouldn’t see that as a particularly personally offensive question (after all, newspapers do get things wrong or say nonsense things) – my reply would be “to the best of my knowledge, no”.

“I think I’m entitled to be annoyed at the suggestion that I fall for conspiracy theories.”

You certainly are – which is why I didn’t suggest that. However, as I have (unintentionally) given you offense, I certainly apologise for any implication that you share conspiracy theory. I hope you will now apologise for implying my relative is stupid – after all, I’m sure you can agree people can be wrong for many reasons, and that even very smart people can be wrong.

Driving analogy

“That was exactly the UK governments ‘Herd Immunity’ policy. That we should reduce the rate of spread and avoid the spread reaching vulnerable people so health services are not overwhelmed and Herd Immunity builds. That now seems to have changed into a scheme to prevent any deaths at all,”

With respect, I think this is conflating a few ideas a bit. My understanding is that measures which reduce the rate of spread (i.e. flattening the curve to reduce strain on health services) include lockdowns (as well as widespread mask wearing, using disinfectants, etc.). That tells you little about the end goal though. To continue using driving as a metaphor (not an ideal fit, but I think serviceable from our perspective) I would break it down into problem, approach, goal, desired end state. Or, to give an example:

People die due to cars (problem), let’s institute speed limits (approach) to minimise people having accidents at high speeds (goal), which will lead to cars traveling not hitting people or objects at high speeds and so reduce deaths (desired end state).

When we plug in an equivalent for the UK government’s “herd immunity” strategy:

People die due to coronavirus (problem), let’s institute lockdown (approach) to minimise people getting infected (goal), which will lead to herd immunity without overwhelming the NHS (desired end state).

This means that the end state (in that formulation) is independent of the approach and goal. I want to highlight that, as you could use the same approach and goal regardless of the desired end state – to give an example (and I want to emphasise I don’t say this is what the desired end state should be, or that countries are selecting this, but am merely using this as an example to make the point regarding approaches and end states):

People die due to coronavirus (problem), let’s institute lockdown (approach) to minimise people getting infected (goal), which will lead to advances in treatment being developed in time to minimise deaths (desired end state).

So, even if you change what the end state is, the problem, approach, and goal can remain the same.

The reason I think this is important is because the UK government initially proposed a “herd immunity” end state but got considerable criticism for it (there are some reasons to think it is not a sensible end state, as highlighted by Chris Bertram). Now that no longer seems to be the end state.

I don’t know of anyone proposing that lockdown will prevent any deaths. I certainly haven’t seen experts saying that (if you have, I’d like the citation). My impression (and this is a purely personal one) is that because the UK government are changing what the end state is the formulation now looks like this:

People die due to coronavirus (problem), let’s institute lockdown (approach) to minimise people getting infected (goal), ??? (end state tbd). [1]

That is hardly reassuring (what the end state should be is a pretty big thing to have as a question mark at the moment) but removing the lockdown then leads to a formulation which looks like this:

People die due to coronavirus (problem), ??? (approach tbd) to ??? (goal tbd), ??? (end state tbd).

Which is significantly worse. I am making a vast oversimplification, of course, but I hope it clarifies that I (and as far as I can tell, no other CT commentator) believe that lockdown will prevent all deaths. If I were to try and make a simplistic response regarding lockdown purpose – it appears it will prevent some infections and delay others, giving more time to a) formulate and test plans of action; b) make advances in treatment (not necessarily just preventative, but also of the “will doing X lower the risk of death while they are in hospital” type); c) look at relaxation of measures (I’d hope you agree that if we relax the lockdown measure and see a spike in deaths, considering implementing lockdown measures is not unreasonable). That is just from me, of course – I am not an expert in the field, and this is just from my understanding (you are welcome to propose your own).

But, in short, all this is to say that – to the best of my knowledge – the UK government is struggling to see what the end state of the pandemic will be (which I am not sure is unique) but removing one of the tools being used to “buy time”, subsequently speeding up infection rates, may not be the best way forward.

[1] I may be wrong and they already have a desired end state in mind, but if they have I am unaware of it and would appreciate the citation to update me on this.

Ferguson model

“I’ve looked at your reference on Ferguson, but it doesn’t help your or their case.”

My case was simple, even if we assume Ferguson is completely wrong and discredited, in order to make a statement about whether or not lockdowns are useful you would have to look at all the evidence for lockdowns, not just one.

To make an analogy – we have an estimation of the age of the earth with some degree of confidence. This is done by using a wide range of tools (radiometric dating, examining the physics of planetary formation, examining extra-terrestrial samples, etc.). In order to show that the age of the earth is significantly wrong, it wouldn’t be enough to say “well, one science group has got their radiometric dating wrong”, you’d have to show that all the people who have come to a consensus regarding the age of the earth are wrong.

Or, to put it more crudely, if your plumber rips you off, does that mean that plumbing itself is all wrong and we know nothing about water pressure? (I don’t say this to insult plumbers, but to give an example of a more day-to-day field of work).

My point was, therefore, if a consensus has been achieved regarding lockdown, you have to show that the consensus is flawed, not that one individual is flawed.

Even then, at that point the most you could say is “there is no evidence that lockdowns do help”. That still doesn’t tell you if lockdowns do not help (that is then a positive claim, which would need to be demonstrated).

So, even if you demonstrate conclusively that Ferguson’s model is so flawed that we cannot accept the conclusions (not yet done), you then have to examine all the other evidence supporting lockdowns piece by piece – otherwise you are just cherry picking.

” it was the code review articles that undermined the scientific case”

I’ve yet to see you cite these code review articles, which is unfortunate as that means I have no way of evaluating the criticisms. What you do cite is an article on WUWT (which is a website I have found somewhat limited in terms of validity in the past) which quotes “Sue Denim” (which isn’t actually her name[2]) who has some criticisms. Going back from that link (you cite an article which actually cites a website) just goes to a different website where we learn the author is anonymous, and not publishing their findings in a peer reviewed journal (where it can be criticised by actual experts in the field).

So, basically, the only thing you have cited is a website, which links to an anonymous allegation about a different model which hasn’t been peer reviewed (it is an article on the website “Lockdown Sceptics”, who I can’t help but suspect may have a slight implicit bias here[3]).

You’ll forgive me if I don’t see this as a smoking gun. While I won’t assert the counter positive, I have grave concerns that “Sue Denim” has not yet subjected their work to robust analysis. Now you might quite reasonably raise concerns regarding Imperial’s work, and transparency in general – I encourage everyone, including “Sue Denim” to do so (contra to their claims). But, if you are being intellectually honest, you then have to submit the criticisms to criticism – otherwise you are engaging in exactly the same behaviour you are accusing others of.

[2] “Sue Denim” claims they don’t want to reveal their identity for fear of retribution and because they hate “credentialism”. The issue I take with this is the reason we publish papers is so they can be evaluated by experts in the field. “Sue” may have made huge mistakes which are not obvious to me, because I am not an expert. Also “Sue” says “average citizens like myself are told we should never question “expertise”” – which is something I’ve never heard in my many years of working in science. Normally the response is not “never question expertise” but “submit your work to somewhere it can be properly evaluated” – it is a pity Sue has declined to do so.

[3] It is worth noting that “Sue Denim” doesn’t just say this is a problem with Ferguson – she says “I’d go further and suggest that all academic epidemiology be defunded. This sort of work is best done by the insurance sector.” I wonder how Sue has come to the conclusion that all of epidemiology (not just one group making one specific model, but the entire field, including all experimental work which has nothing to do with modeling) is fundamentally flawed – that would seem to be a bit of an overreach in order to extrapolate from one example. It is also worth noting that “Sue” criticises a small research group at a university for not, in a few weeks, producing a model up the standards of google (a multi-billion dollar company). One might wonder if there may be a reason for that other than “all scientists are idiots”, and if it may have to do with not having sufficient funding to hire the personel to do so. It is also interesting that despite “Sue” and many others essentially saying “I can do better than that”, they have sadly declined to do so yet.

” the Scientific establishment who are undermined by the criticism of Ferguson’s code, not (just) Ferguson. If you are the head of something your job is largely to uphold standards, because if you don’t then why should anyone else? So senior people in academia need to think hard right now about the standards of coding they expect.”

Firstly, and I say this as nicely as I can, you are horribly, horribly confused about how science should work and the scientific method. We do not have such a formal hierarchy, where “senior people” decide what is and isn’t “science”. What we have is a variety of methods to try and get the most accurate understanding of reality – including one of the most powerful (though by no means 100% perfect), peer review. Essentially, work submitted to a reputable journal is sent out to reviewers who can read it, offer criticisms, and (if there are serious flaws) reject it. This doesn’t mean that we then get to make a proclamation of truth – all research is tentative and only given a level of confidence proportional to the evidence supporting it. The particular citation given by “Sue Denim” is for an online white paper article – i.e. where something is published on line but acknowledged to have not undergone peer-review (and so, as any expert in the field will tell you, results are proposed far more tentatively).

What I find quite hilarious about this is that even in the one and only reference you give, “Sue Denim” notes that Imperial and Edenborough are going through a process of discussing potential issues with the model and then working to resolve them. So the model is being reviewed, issues are being found by relevant experts in the field, and discussion regarding how to address it ensues. Apparently this fairly normal process of engaging in peer review to discuss issues now demonstrates an entire field is wrong. Yet it is the experts in the field who are highlighting the concerns in the first place. So essentially you are arguing that experts in the field highlighting concerns with the coding proves experts in the field are not evaluating the coding. Well, ok then[4].

For a more balanced view of how models have been employed to give tentative conclusions (which are in the process of being refined), I would recommend this Nature News feature [5].

It is also worth noting that Ferguson testified to Parliment he would expect UK deaths to top out at about 20,000. UK deaths are at approximately at 33,000. So he is wrong, but perhaps not in the way you’d expect.

[4] This reminds me a lot of “emailgate”, where after sifting through the illegally hacked emails of Michael Mann phrases were deliberately taken out of context [5] and heralded as proof that the entire field of climate research was nonsense. Needless to say, those responsible for promulgating this have yet to offer a retraction, or to offer up their own models for review.

[5] https://www.skepticalscience.com/Mikes-Nature-trick-hide-the-decline.htm

[6] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01003-6

” The notion that had the UK locked down earlier thousand of lives would have been saved for instance is just supposition.”

There is some experimental data (since you don’t trust models) that countries with lockdowns flatten the curve far more rapidly than those which delay. Now, you are correct we do not have a placebo UK to compare to, so it is impossible to say with certainty, but there does seem to be some evidence to support this notion – not certainty, not conclusively, but enough to suggest it may be the case. We may never know. However, to borrow from you:

“I don’t know whether the lockdown is necessary.”…” But conclusive evidence is hard so everything is a judgement.”

South Korea has not instituted a lockdown, but does have a very aggressive trace-and-test approach. If the UK government had followed that path, I don’t know the results would be much worse. Another approach, certainly, but as you say, a lot of the societal response will have to be a series of judgement calls (based on data, but also accounting for what measures are practical – trace and test will only work if you have the ability to carry it out, after all).

So, one approach is to “overreact” by instituting a lockdown, then to relax measures (first not going to work, then going to work but only for essential workers, going to work for more people but wearing masks and using hand wash, etc. etc.) little-by-little to look for spikes, then clamp back down again if there is a resurgence. Many countries seem to be taking this approach – including the UK.

I don’t see this as excessively problematic, I wonder why you do?


hix 05.13.20 at 3:36 pm

What i do not understand at all is why we could not just press pause for real on the economy here. Why not just shut down everything short of elextricity generation for two weaks , even shut down food stores and organice home deliver for everyone. There is just not much to lose by starting as radical as possible and the economic damage is not really an issue until those measures become more permanent. And everyone would have had time rubinating at home about how to minimice any contagion risk once they reopen. Fortunatly, the big car companies did shut down mainly for lack of demand without a government order. Come to think of it, even Italy at their most radical point had so many exceptions for essential economic activity that half the economy turned out to be essential.


rogergathmann 05.13.20 at 4:34 pm

It is funny to hear these weird theories about “herd immunity” when recent history shows, pretty decisively, that what is needed is quarantine. The SARS virus that threatened to become pandemic in 2003 didn’t become a pandemic. The reason was not because of a vaccine, or some immunity acquired by the population. It was because the Chinese government, after covering up the beginning of the epidemic, shut down Guangdong province. As Mike Davis wrote in Monster at the Door: “In Guangdong, 80 million people were mobilized to clean houses and streets. In the countryside, virtually every village was on SARS alert, with roadside booths installed to examine all those who entered or left.” To the surprise of many, these draconian quarantines—“momentous measures” says Yanzhong Huang—seemed to work. The spread of the SARS epidemic inside China was arrested, and in late June the WHO canceled its warnings about travel to Hong Kong and Beijing.121
While the drama inside China was unfolding, a WHO-organized virtual consortium of laboratories was working night and day to discover the cause of SARS. Within a month, this unprecedented research effort, spearheaded by Malik Peiris and his colleagues in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, had isolated a coronavirus. Although scientists were greatly relieved that it was not “the Big One” (an influenza pandemic) after all, they were flabbergasted that a member of a viral family normally associated with mild colds and diarrhea had become an international serial killer. And as researchers sequenced the genome of the SARS virus, they found little link to any of the known human-adapted members of the family. The SARS virus was genetically sui generis.”
If China had instituted “Swedish” rules in 2003, it is a safe bet that the Sars virus would have swept the world, just like our current corona is doing. It is nonsense to think that we are going to reach “herd immunity”. Sweden is banking on the virus only killing old people and immigrants, and they might be right on the bet this time, but these viruses are evolving in environments that favor them, and the next time they might have to bet on them killing kids. And they will make that bet, I’d bet. Because that is acceptable casualties from the point of view of an ideology that values a form of the economy much more than the people who are supposed to be the end purpose of it.


Richard Melvin 05.13.20 at 4:38 pm

It is really not much use to argue like a defense lawyer; ‘the virus is not following due process, so all cases must be thrown out’.

There is a kind of magical thinking that says the language used to describe measures put in place has a relation to how effective the measure are, or that the procedure for review of modelling code can somehow influence the behavior of the system the code is trying to model.

What counts is how effective the measures put in place are in actually reducing infection spread. Probably best proxy for that is, with a few caveats, <a href=”https://www.google.com/covid19/mobility/>google’s location data.

According to epidemiologists, essentially all infections happen either at home, in work, or on public transport to/from work.

No western country is trying to reduce in-home transmission; that would requires quarantine camps.

So the question is how much different countries are actually succeeding at reducing the number of people travelling to work. For the Netherlands, that figure is 43%, Norway 34%, Sweden 24%. For comparison, the US is
44%, and the UK 63%.

Most of those figures are enough to halt runaway growth; some are enough to cause daily infections to dwindle towards zero. Those where they are not do not need different language, but different action.


Tm 05.13.20 at 7:48 pm

Melvin: „According to epidemiologists, essentially all infections happen either at home, in work, or on public transport to/from work.“

„According to epidemiologists“ is a dangerous phrase to use… It is strongly suspected that mass events, like soccer matches, have played an important role in the spread of the Virus in Italy, which is why virtually all countries moved quickly to ban those.
And I’m not aware of any reason why infection while shopping should be any less likely than at work. Most of us spend far more time at work, that is true, but then it also depends a lot on the kind of work you do. And I could add more objections.

I’m sure you are aware of this. The point is, try to avoid simplification. Just work really hard to avoid them. We don’t need them, we really don’t.


carl d 05.13.20 at 7:56 pm

What I find weird is the language of morality here, e g that Sweden is prepared to sacrifice the old, the immigrants and even the children for the economy. The economic effect will be the same in Sweden as elsewhere, not least since half the Swedish GDP is export, so saving the economy is not the main reason; though it plays a part. the government officials have stated that that they want to achieve a level that is ‘sustainable’, in the sense that it can be kept for a long time; not lockdown followed by a potential ‘trial-and-error’ opening . Secondly, I thought this was a forum for researchers and intellectuals, and still you see a lot of emotional arguments that I would not expect from rational people. The Swedish officials are not evil: they believe the best way is to protect the vulnerable and slow down the virus among the rest of the population. they do not think we can stop it as 1) it is too contagious and 2) you can’t be in lockdown for very long as people would freak out. a good neutral account of the two different perspectives are provided here: https://unherd.com/2020/05/britain-might-end-up-following-the-swedes-lead/ the author does a good job showing we don’t know yeat which approach that will be the best. Thirdly, it may be my Nordic disposition, but I think people nowadays have a tendency to freak out over issues related to sickness and death. This could easily lead to ‘a life in fear’. and indeed, Giesecke has stated that one of his main concerns is that the virus and the lockdowns, and the tracing and IT solutions that will be developed and are related to increasing surveillance of individuals, will strengthen authoritarian governments. people will be more willing to give up freedom for security. maybe we should adopt a slightly more philosophical approach to death? to quote M A A:
“Human life.Duration: momentary. Nature: changeable. Perception: dim. Condition of Body: decaying. Soul: spinning around. Fortune: unpredictable. Lasting Fame: uncertain.
Sum Up: The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion.
Then what can guide us?
Only philosophy.”


Faustusnotes 05.13.20 at 10:45 pm

Despite having been shown very clearly the numbers dipper is on here arguing that maybe cars kill more people than covid. He really is beyond reach.

It’s worth remembering that Sweden’s response is far from nothing – banning large gatherings, closing high schools and universities, and encouraging home working is actually quite a large change. If that leads to manageable growth of the virus that’s an interesting outcome, but as case numbers grow and time passes the possibility that it slips out of control also grows. Their results are not comparable to Vietnam, NZ or Australia where cases were much smaller due to early and strict interventions.


Hugo 05.14.20 at 7:34 am

This is a good article that gives just one example of Xi Jinping’s fascist jackboots terrorising Chinese citizens for reporting on the coronavirus in Wuhan. Fascist China sure ain’t Sweden. https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-02-03/china-wuhan-coronavirus-censorship


novakant 05.14.20 at 7:59 am

“We failed to protect our elderly. That’s really serious, and a failure for society as a whole. We have to learn from this, we’re not done with this pandemic yet,” Health and Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren told Swedish Television recently.


The very same thing happened in the UK, carers infecting residents due to lack of PPE, no testing whatsoever and poor working conditions – it’s a heartbreaking scandal and of course could have been prevented, but nobody gave a damn.

But hey, I’m sure they’ll all be pleased if carl d comes around for a little reading of Marcus Aurelius – seriously, is there any humanity left?


Wats 05.14.20 at 8:37 am

@94 There’s a lot to be said for stoicism in private life (Seneca advises us to think about death often so that when it comes we can go out to meet it) but I’m not sure that it’s much use as a guide to public policy…


faustusnotes 05.14.20 at 9:30 am

It’s fascinating to see this debate playing out between Sweden (semi-effective semi-lockdown) and the UK (ineffective full lockdown) rather than say Sweden and Japan, or Sweden and South Korea, or Sweden and Oz, or Sweden and NZ, or indeed Sweden and any province of China outside of Hubei. How many cases and deaths were there in Fujian or Zhejiang or Guangdong? How do those provinces’ actions compare to Sweden? Or Sweden (28,000 cases) and Japan (15,000 cases) where Sweden is now seeing >500 cases a day and Japan <100. Sweden has 3500 deaths compared to Japan’s 600. Japan had a moderate lockdown after implementing an early and more successful version of Sweden’s approach. The Japanese lockdown began when Japan was seeing about 250 cases a day, when Japan’s new case curve was about a week delayed from Sweden’s. Since then there has been maybe one day when Japan saw more cases than Sweden, and the lockdown is now going to end in much of Japan just 6 weeks after it started, and in some remaining prefectures 8 weeks after it started. Yet that Unherd article Carl D links to compares Sweden’s policy with the UK’s vastly incompetent approach.

This is another example of how westerners just cannot look east, and have to faff about trying to make bad policy from each others’ mistakes, instead of looking to places that work. When stacked against pretty much anywhere in Asia, Sweden’s approach is disastrous. I bet they end up having to lockdown anyway in a few week’s time, but will just have wasted 5000 lives getting there.


carl d 05.14.20 at 9:38 am

The real scandal is that (almost) no one gave a damn about the elderley and the terrible conditions of privatized elderley homes around the world before the scandal. We knew it was bad but few people raised the issue. The scandal in Montreal seem to indicate that the staff mereley abandoned the old and left them to die.

Just as few people don’t seem to care that much about the fact that many kids even in rich countries don’t get a proper education. Or that some people have a salary that you cannot live on (thus having too work in a pandemic, scared or not) and live in too crowded homes.

many of the deaths we now see is a logical outcome of how we have organised our societies. And I have little hope we will have learned or changed much when the next pandemics come.

I agree philosophy is no substitute for good public policy. But I also think we will to make some rational decisions, and not resort to hysteria. my quote was just an attempt -perhaps not so elegant – to advocate for carful analysis


nastywoman 05.14.20 at 11:41 am

AND did we finally get the answer – we also asked here –
from –
”The Trump Death Clock” ?

”A digital billboard in New York City’s Times Square targeting President Donald Trump’s early inaction on coronavirus reached a grave milestone on Wednesday, as it ticked over to an estimated 50,000 preventable deaths. The “Trump Death Clock” projects a running counter of deaths, which according to two leading epidemiologists, could have been avoided had social distancing measures been implemented earlier. Eugene Jarecki, the Emmy and Peabody award-winning director behind political documentaries, such as “Why We Fight” and “The House I Live In” and the sign’s creator, said the counter was in the same “symbolic spirit” as the National Debt Clock, which already hangs in the city. The Death Clock, he said, measures “the cost in human lives of President Trump and his team’s reckless handling of the coronavirus pandemic.” Epidemiologists Dr. Britta L. Jewell and Nicolas P. Jewell estimated a 60% reduction in deaths had mitigation measures been enacted on March 9. Despite experts sounding the alarm as early as January, Trump was still calling coronavirus a hoax at the end of February and, on the crucial March 9 marker, was contrasting it with “the common flu.”


J-D 05.14.20 at 11:52 am

… I thought this was a forum for researchers and intellectuals …

What made you think that? There are no barriers to entry. Do you think there should be?


Hidari 05.14.20 at 12:08 pm


Communist fascists, eh? The worst kind.


carl d 05.14.20 at 5:20 pm

‘no humanity left’, yes, but its easy to see the downsides of the lockdowns:

and the news today: ‘U.N. Warns of Surge in Child Deaths and Mental Illness Amid Coronavirus ‘ The Covid virus is quite harmless for children (despite the few high-profile cases; statistically speaking its pretty harmless), so the case could be made that the lockdown may be more harmful for children than keeping them at school. I do not say I know this for sure, but we must realize that all countries ‘gamble’ and ‘experiment’; if you think otherwise you need to think again!


Hugo 05.15.20 at 2:16 am


How many cases and deaths were there in Fujian or Zhejiang or Guangdong?

Who knows? The Chinese government routinely lies for propaganda purposes and the small number of citizen journalists who originally reported on what was happening have been intimidated and silenced by Chinese Communist Party jackbooted goons. The official Chinese government figures are completely untrustworthy.

We do know, however, that the Popular People’s Province of Guangdong killed 29 people by putting them in a quarantine hotel that collapsed. I wouldn’t call that a shining example of good policy to be emulated but maybe I’m just a little old fashioned.

Faustusnotes again:

This is another example of how westerners just cannot look east….

Nonsense. Plenty of westerners have looked East, including to free and democratic Taiwan, which has recorded just 7 deaths and no new cases in over a week. Unlike fascist China, Taiwan has done this without oppressive censorship, without goon squads intimidating the populace, without welding people into buildings, without dragging doctors into police stations and forcing them to shut up and sign manufactured confessions on pain of imprisonment, and without all the other depravities associated with dictator-for-life Xi Jinping’s iron rule.


faustusnotes 05.15.20 at 5:36 am

That’s right Hugo, just make up all the numbers you want about everything. You don’t have to think critically about everything if you just assume everyone you don’t like is lying about everything. Makes life very easy, doesn’t it!? Sadly it’s not very useful, though.


Dipper 05.15.20 at 10:01 am

Faustusnotes knows full well that my arguments about deaths due to traffic accidents provide prior evidence of society’s attitude to ‘avoidable’ deaths which serve as a reference point for future decisions. I didn’t claim that numbers were comparable, but Faustusnotes, as well all know by now, likes nothing better than tilting at windmills.

Here’s some analysis of prediction and fact from Sweden. Basically it says the numbers are far less than predicted for the more relaxed Swedish regime and speculates that is due to changes in behaviour not captured in the models. Lots of graphs and numbers, Faustusnotes, right up your boulevard.

@notGoodenough thank you again for the time spend on that lengthy and considered reply.

I apologise to your relative. I didn’t mean to imply he was stupid. Neil Ferguson was pro-EU so I can see where he gets his notion from.

I think your description of the logic transformation over the time so far of the virus is correct. The onslaught from opposition, media, and some academics is forcing the government from a position with logic but a cost to a position for which there is no objective. To summarise, if there are no rational grounds for entering into a policy then there is no rational way of exiting it.

I do think there is a logic to the lockdown that is about saving lives overall. In effect, it is the one you stated, buying time for a vaccine/improved management development, or trying to get the incidence down so low that a contact tracing methodology can be applied to limit spread. On that point, rogergathmann‘s comparison with SARS seems to have a significant flaw, in that I understand SARS produced symptoms in everyone who got it so identifying carriers was feasible. Covid is asymptomatic in some spreaders so there is an extra degree of difficulty. I do find many of the international comparisons to be arguments of the ‘I wouldn’t start from here’ variety and at best are irritating and irrelevant.

Re Ferguson’s code, I am right on this. Trust me. To use your plumber analogy, If I hired a plumber through a trusted trader scheme and they were rubbish, and I went back to the scheme and they said well, unlucky, but we have ones who are better, then you would soon lose faith with the trusted trader scheme. The point about a trusted trader scheme is it is meant to guarantee a standard. On academia you state “We do not have such a formal hierarchy, where “senior people” decide what is and isn’t “science””, but you do implicitly. There are research councils who police grants. There is peer review. There is an implicit trusted academic scheme in the letter re Ferguson linked above where other academics are claiming him as their own.

The thing about computer code, as everyone who has done it knows, is it is really hard to get your code to do exactly what you want in all circumstances. The opportunity for mistakes is endless. So the presumption amongst most software development in my experience is that the onus is on the programmer to demonstrate the programme works, not on others to prove that it doesn’t. Good development teams will be eager to show people the supporting evidence for their work in terms off specification, control, and testing. In my experience, if you cannot easily find that evidence, that is because the evidence isn’t there, and if it isn’t there then it hasn’t been done. And if the testing hasn’t been done then the code won’t do what it is intended to do.


Wats 05.15.20 at 10:59 am

@100 My point was not about philosophy more generally only about one school which is well known for reminding us not to be afraid of death. Indeed if our thoughts about public policy start from the assumption that a concern with not dying is merely irrational, hysterical or emotional, then it probably needs more philosophical scrutiny, not less.

The stoics were also concerned with how to die and I can’t help but think that we have good reason to fear the sort of death entailed by Covid19, cut off from our families at the end. No doubt there are worse ways to die but this one doesn’t look especially attractive to me.


reason 05.15.20 at 2:17 pm

Dipper @75
“Were we seriously going to quarantine 50,000 people for two weeks?”

Why on earth not? It is not even difficult.


Hidari 05.15.20 at 5:21 pm

‘Unlike fascist China, Taiwan has done this without oppressive censorship, without goon squads intimidating the populace, without welding people into buildings, without dragging doctors into police stations and forcing them to shut up and sign manufactured confessions on pain of imprisonment, and without all the other depravities associated with dictator-for-life Xi Jinping’s iron rule.’

What an amazing coincidence that China started to manifest these behaviours at precisely the same time that the Chinese became a threat to long term American interests in the so-called ‘Far East’.

In the same way that it’s amazing that the Assad government (which had previously been our friend) became a dictatorial regime brutally murdering what was always unctuously described as ‘its own people’ when Assad stopped doing what we told him to.

In the same way that it’s amazing that the Gaddafi government (which had previously been our friend) became a dictatorial regime brutally murdering what was always unctuously described as ‘its own people’ when Gaddafi stopped doing what we told him to.

In the same way that it’s amazing that the Saddam Hussein government (which had previously been our friend) became a dictatorial regime brutally murdering what was always unctuously described as ‘its own people’ when Saddam Hussein stopped doing what we told him to.

In the same way that it’s amazing that (etc. etc. etc)


notGoodenough 05.15.20 at 7:29 pm

Dipper @ 107

Firstly, thank you for your apology. I think it is important that, even though we may disagree vehemently on our beliefs we still maintain respect for people (if not their views). This also seems to be your position, and I appreciate your taking the time – particularly in these difficult days. I would also like to take the opportunity to say that despite our many disagreements (and no doubt I frustrate you as much as the reverse!) I sincerely hope things are going well for you and everyone in the UK – it is a stressful time, so I hope you’ll join me in enjoying a beverage of your choice and taking a moment to relax when you can.

Secondly I want to examine the concern you have regarding (what I believe might reasonably be called) “the system”, and offer some points for your consideration. This is rather a long post, so I am confining it to essentially the topic of “re Ferguson’s model” and the context in which this model exists. However, it is very important to note I am not defending Ferguson’s model itself (I lack expertise to evaluate the model or the criticisms of the model), instead what I wish to do is make the case that whatever issues there may be with this one specific model do not in fact necessarily reflect badly on epidemiology and science as a whole.

This is a bit long, so I’ve split it into a couple of posts.

With that said, let’s look at the context of the Ferguson model, and how much confidence has actually been put in it – and by the field of epidemiology in particular.

A look at the paper in which the “Ferguson model” was actually used part 1

You may not be aware of this, and maybe “Sue Denim” wasn’t either, but one important thing to note about the paper referenced is that it is a non-peer reviewed white paper. What does that mean? To take from medRxiv (who published an alternative model from Oxford):

Before formal publication in a scholarly journal, scientific and medical articles are traditionally certified by “peer review.” In this process, the journal’s editors take advice from various experts—called “referees”—who have assessed the paper and may identify weaknesses in its assumptions, methods, and conclusions. Typically a journal will only publish an article once the editors are satisfied that the authors have addressed referees’ concerns and that the data presented support the conclusions drawn in the paper.

Because this process can be lengthy, authors use the medRxiv service to make their manuscripts available as “preprints” before certification by peer review, allowing other scientists to see, discuss, and comment on the findings immediately. Readers should therefore be aware that articles on medRxiv have not been finalized by authors, might contain errors, and report information that has not yet been accepted or endorsed in any way by the scientific or medical community.

We also urge journalists and other individuals who report on medical research to the general public to consider this when discussing work that appears on medRxiv preprints and emphasize it has yet to be evaluated by the medical community and the information presented may be erroneous.”

Emphasis mine. Note that this description would reasonably apply to any non-peer reviewed journal (I selected this one for its excellent clarity and the specific mention of journalists or other individuals, as well as the fact that it publishes a different – and arguably competing – model).

So, it is critically important to note Ferguson’s model was not subject to peer review, nor had it been assessed by the wider scientific community. This means the level of confidence in it (by anyone who knows this) should of course be proportionally lower. As I have just noted, medRxiv have a rather large and fulsome disclaimer before any such work for exactly that reason – and anyone launching criticism of science as a whole might do well to consider that context first.

This is because, at least to me, criticising the scientific community for not previously reviewing work published in a form which does not undertake peer review would seem to be a little unfair. To borrow the analogy again, you are essentially pointing to an as-yet uncertified piece of plumbing and then criticising the trusted trader scheme (and implicitly all plumbers everywhere) for not making sure it meets your standards.

Or, to put it another way, the criteria you are now using to suggest problems with the way science is carried out (particularly in epidemiology) is: Flaws in a tentative model with a big disclaimer about the unproven nature of its results means that the way we carry out science is fundamentally flawed.

I hope you can appreciate why I am concerned with people pointing to a tentatively proposed model with disclaimers about its preliminary nature, pointing out flaws in it, then drawing the conclusion that if there are flaws in a preliminary model it means the whole of epidemiology and science must be flawed. That would be a bit like asking a plumber for an estimate for a job they don’t have information to evaluate, them giving you a rough and non-legally binding guess while caveating it “look mate, until I see it I can’t be sure, but based on what you’ve said I’d guess £5,000 – but don’t take that as gospel, it is just a guess”, and then if their figure is wrong you write a letter to parliament arguing the trusted trader scheme is corrupt and should be abolished immediately.

Now one reasonable question you might want to ask is why publish non-peer reviewed work in the first place – surely if it skips the process of peer review it is worthless?

Well, the main reason for publishing un-refereed work (as I understand it, though I should note it is non-existent in my field due to the different nature of the work) is to put models out there for people to evaluate. Essentially you are trying to get rapid feedback or access to expertise you may not have. And, it is worth noting, that this was in fact happening long before criticisms of the coding were made[1].

So we have a situation where an academic has published their preliminary model as an un-refereed paper[2]. This work tentatively proposes a model to give insight into what measures may be useful, and is disseminated to the scientific community for evaluation and criticism. Edinburgh point out some problems with the coding (which, as you say, may be a result of people not familiar with coding making mistakes) to Imperial. Work is commencing on revising the code, presumably to fix these problems and help develop a better model.

If I am to take it that this means there is a big problem somewhere which now undermines the credibility of science then I’m sorry, but I am currently missing it.


notGoodenough 05.15.20 at 7:34 pm

A look at the paper in which the “Ferguson model” was actually used part 2

”There is an implicit trusted academic scheme in the letter re Ferguson linked above where other academics are claiming him as their own.”

The letter also states that there are multiple lines of evidence from multiple different research groups coming to a broad consensus. If Ferguson does turn out to have been completely wrong, does that then invalidate the purely empirical work of a completely different research group who never go near models? If so, why? Because surely even if you think all modelling work is suspect (for reasons I detail that is a bit of an overreach) how did you evaluate that research which contains no modelling is also wrong?

However, to address your comment, generally speaking we don’t rely on an evaluation of the academic themselves to evaluate the work – essentially that becomes an “argument from authority” fallacy, or a sort of credentialism (I know some incredibly smart people in my field who sometimes make errors, and yes these are typically corrected when it happens). In fact we don’t “trust” academics as such – we apportion confidence to each individual piece of work in proportion to the supporting evidence. Academics can be (and often are) “wrong”, after all. Work is published, and sometimes new evidence or the discovery of errors makes that work incorrect. Sometimes work is even retracted after someone sees it and raises a point which means it is no longer tenable. Yet this is a demonstration of the strength of the system – not its weakness. I would be far more concerned if that didn’t happen – and I hope you’d agree that while in an ideal world no mistake would ever be made, since it is more-or-less inevitable it is better they are made and corrected than made and not.

If there is such a thing as “trusted academic scheme” it would basically be “assume that the work being presented is not completely fictitious or intentionally duplicitous until someone has shown they are not worthy of that trust” (i.e. assume that people are not deliberately lying). And to show an academic it not worthy of trust, you would have to demonstrate not just mistakes (which would invalidate the work, of course) but actual behaviour sufficient to warrant people losing confidence in the academic (not just one paper). It is not unheard of – there have been frauds and cheats (I can even give an example of one case I’m aware of where a PhD student was forced to leave research permanently after they tried publishing some data they’d modified to hide an error – which is the power of peer review!). Within UK community (and others, but UK is the one we care about in this context), once someone has been shown to have behaved badly, it becomes impossible for that academic to ever work again (they will be blacklisted by funding bodies, journals will refuse to publish their work, and no-one with any credibility to lose will work with them again).

It is worth noting though that the extent of the criticisms that have been bought to bear is that one early build alpha version of a model is badly coded and (in the opinion of someone not necessarily able to understand its intended function, and I don’t mean that as an insult but because knowing something’s purpose may change perspective on its function) unfit for purpose. This is apparently enough to say that anyone working in the field anywhere is dangerously incompetent. Had Ferguson published in a widely accepted peer reviewed paper (which then formed the basis of other work, after which criticisms were levelled in a forum where they could be evaluated, found to be sound, and then subsequently ignored) I would be more critical of the field. However, given Ferguson has published a non-peer reviewed paper which has been criticised and is not foundational to non-Imperial work (or even, to the best of my knowledge, the majority of other Imperial work), I am not quite convinced of the need to started wielding the guillotine just yet.

Of course, I am happy to listen to any case when it has been made in front of people able to assess it – but I’m afraid to convince me the entire field must go you would have to demonstrate (to people who can evaluate your claims) not just extreme incompetence in this one model (I would say the paper should be retracted, as should any to which this is fundamental – those to which it is incidental could perhaps make a correction), or even that the entire Ferguson team is incompetent (in which case they should face mandatory retraining, or perhaps permanent black marks depending on their involvement and degree of negligence), but that the majority of work in the field is incompetent (a case which I feel has yet to be made at all).

“Good development teams will be eager to show people the supporting evidence for their work in terms of specification, control, and testing.”

Which Imperial were in the process of doing, by getting it evaluated by an external team – including Edinburgh and John Carmak (who “Sue” refers to as a legendary game developer in what I take to be a fairly approving tone). Interestingly, it is the bug reports generated by this testing that “Sue” uses as the foundation of their complaints about the coding – so it seems a little odd that you think that testing isn’t being done.

Now you could say “the code isn’t publically available”. To which I would say, 1) if you wanted to have something tested would you first ask experts to look it over, or would you just release your alpha version online to everyone and hope that out of the feedback there will be useful comments (if you feel the answer is obviously a general release, I would ask you to browse YouTube comments sometime and see what the % of useful advice is typically found there); and 2) I don’t recall companies regularly making their raw code available to the general public – if you wish to say companies have issues with commercial sensitivity, I would point out that i) you often have to get permission for all authors to release any work due to copyright reasons (and yes it is stupid, and yes I have had to do it, and no I don’t think I should, but the law is the law even if it is bloody stupid); ii) it isn’t always possible to easily get permission from institutes to release work as they often want a legal team to comb through it all first which takes forever (see my previous remarks re copyright); and iii)academics are expected to be able to publish-or-perish, so releasing your code for external verification by people you trust not to steal your work would seem to be a not unreasonable compromise (at least until you can convince funding bodies and universities to stop evaluating academic output, which I would definitely support but find unlikely to happen any time soon – again see my previous comments re copyright).

Basically, the approach of Imperial is to have published preliminary work in a non-peer reviewed journal for rapid dissemination, and then undertake a form of post-publication peer-review. Now it is the reviews of those peers themselves being used to form the criticism that all of epidemiology is flawed.

Frankly, I feel the complaint “this is a failure of the entire field because of the quality of this code” is only reasonable if the entire field had the opportunity to actually evaluate the code. Since they hadn’t, it seems a little unfair to then use the subsequent evaluation as evidence that the field is not evaluating the quality of the code. It is a bit catch 22 if researchers are expected to evaluate the quality of the code before they have the opportunity to evaluate the quality of the code.


notGoodenough 05.15.20 at 7:35 pm

A look at the paper in which the “Ferguson model” was actually used part 3

It may also be worth looking at the language used in the paper:

“Our estimates of mortality and healthcare demand are based on data from China and high-income countries; differences in underlying health conditions and healthcare system capacity will likely result in different patterns in low income settings.”


“Our analysis therefore suggests that healthcare demand can only be kept within manageable levels through the rapid adoption of public health measures”


“Our analysis highlights the challenging decisions faced by all governments in the coming weeks and months, but demonstrates the extent to which rapid, decisive and collective action now could save millions of lives.”


So now we are at the stage where any faults found in the tentative model used to generate suggestions and potential implications (with a big disclaimer about the unproven nature of these results) is enough to cause considerable concern with the entire field of epidemiology (including all empirical work).

Now while there appear to be some reasons to have concerns regarding “Sue”’s evaluation[3] (I am not an expert, so I won’t pretend to know whether the evaluation or the criticisms of the evaluation are fair), I won’t address that (I doubt I could in any meaningful fashion) and instead would posit that the context alone renders the judgement that this represents a major blow to the credibility of science a little bit of an overreach.

I appreciate that people require a high standard to have reasonable confidence, but this is akin to if I read an internal thread of people testing and discussing an early alpha build, saw that problems were being raised, and then demanded that anyone who codes or uses software be fired on the basis that one particular engineer isn’t following what I consider to be best practice. That would seem a pretty high bar to be set.

It may also be worth looking at what Ferguson has said[4]:

“Governments across the world are relying on mathematical projections to help guide decisions in this pandemic. Computer simulations account for only a fraction of the data analyses that modelling teams have performed in the crisis, Ferguson notes, but they are an increasingly important part of policymaking. But, as he and other modellers warn, much information about how SARS-CoV-2 spreads is still unknown and must be estimated or assumed — and that limits the precision of forecasts.

Emphasis mine.

“We’re building simplified representations of reality. Models are not crystal balls,” Ferguson says.”

That does not sound like Ferguson is proclaiming their model is foundational to epidemiological response, or even a highly accurate representation of reality – it sounds like he is suggesting that they are tentatively making a “best guess” based on incomplete information, and that even then we should be cautious.

Now this doesn’t mean that Ferguson (or Oxford, or indeed anyone) is above criticism. We only have to point to the criticisms made by other scientists to substantiate that! But I feel that if you have concerns with something, the best way to deal with that would be to get in contact to raise those concerns (and maybe even get involved in the work, and getting your name on a paper!), or failing that submit your criticisms in a forum where other experts can evaluate your comments and see if they make sense or not (i.e. act as a peer reviewer – and trust me, peer reviewers in high demand because it is an unpaid job with a lot of work!). It is a pity (and I mean that most sincerely) that “Sue” has declined to follow either course of action – instead writing an article on an obscure website where it is unlikely to generate much attention from those who could actually evaluate it. Given that one of “Sue”’s main criticisms is that Imperial failed to run their work past people able to evaluate it first, it seems slightly ironic (dare I suggest even hypocritical) of “Sue” to then engage in the very behaviour they rail against (the issue being, of course, that if “Sue” is wrong at all, it would be difficult for any non-expert to know).

David Hume (sorry for mentioning him again – I swear I’m trying to cut down to only twice a week) has taught us that our confidence in something is proportional to the evidence. This is why scientists typically demonstrate not just their work, but also the degree of confidence to have in their work (something recent with little support should be treated more cautiously than something with far more evidence behind it).

Any worthwhile scientist know this, so would apportion far less confidence to a tentative model which is acknowledged to potentially be flawed than they would to a wide range of different models well verified by a range of relevant experts. There is an old saying often trotted out when purveyors of nonsense try to point to their own made up journals as proof of their fantastical claims (much as if I were to start the “Journal of Why notGoodenough is Awesome” and start pointing to articles there). The saying goes like this “peer review is only as good as the quality of the peers” – in short, if your work is only reviewed by people lacking expertise (or no-one at all) then pretty much most scientists will treat it as a tentative guess at best (or, in my particular case, not even consider it at all). That is also the case with Ferguson – if you had showed the paper to me prior to any of this and asked me what confidence I have in it, firstly I’d say “why ask me and not someone who actually understands this stuff?”, but if you put a gun to my head and demand I evaluate it I would point to it not being peer reviewed as being a reason I would be very cautious of any claims being made (though I would caveat my reply by repeatedly making the point “you do know I don’t understand this, please ask a real epidemiologist!”), and that would be without even having to see any code at all. I would also have the same comments about the Oxford model (and only in part because their article literally says that as well!). I would also be shocked if the majority of scientists didn’t agree with that[6]. However, it is worth noting that that isn’t the question being asked – and “what confidence would you have in the claims made in this specific paper?” is rather different to “should all epidemiologists be fired?”, and so likely elicits rather different answers.

However, I would also posit that if you are caveating your work as preliminary, un-refereed, and full of estimates and assumptions, I’m not sure that you can do much more to point out how not-yet-validated it is. If you are also engaged in the process of running it by other experts (including experts in coding) to get their feedback, I feel pointing to the feedback being provided that this early alpha build is flawed would seem to me to more reasonably provoke a “no duh – let’s fix it or build a better model” level of response rather than a furious demand that all of epidemiology research must be stopped in the middle of a pandemic.

That is just my opinion, of course, but to make yet another analogy: do you think that any bugs or sloppiness found in any alpha code from any developer means that all software engineers should be fired and all software companies nationalised? I would posit that might be a little of an overreaction.

One major criticism being levelled at the field is “lack of transparency”. Firstly, if a big disclaimer to be careful with these results because they are tentative isn’t enough transparency for you, here’s another thing to consider. You know who have been complaining about lack of transparency since forever? Who repeatedly write about it, and are ignored because no-one outside academia really cares? Scientists and researchers[7]!

To be frank, if the private sector actually demonstrates as much honesty and external transparency, I’ll be prepared to consider the privatisation suggestion (though it would have to be a pretty good case). If it is demonstrated that the majority of scientists working in a field are grossly negligent, I’ll support the idea of revamping that field. But until those things are actually demonstrated, I am not convinced the entire field of epidemiology – let alone science as a whole – has been damaged beyond all repair by the discovery of sloppy code in one tentative alpha version of a model published in one-non peer reviewed paper. You can disagree of course, but I would like the case to be made for why.

Another criticism which I feel might be made is “why did the government act on this if it was so preliminary”? Well, that isn’t a scientific question; it is a political and policy question[8]. However, firstly I don’t know the level of impact this single model had (e.g. what other evidence or models the government had and how many caveats it was presented with), and secondly the government may be making a lot of additional judgement calls (e.g. what will be the fallout if we don’t act vs. do act, what is the best and worst case in either of those scenarios, and what will be the political, social, and economic fallout – and it is perhaps worth noting that the Ferguson paper carefully states that these points were beyond the scope of their work and were not, therefore, not considered by them).

If you are really concerned about the degree that governments may be led astray, I actually agree[9] that that is a valid concern – the lack of basic epistemology amongst many people is shocking, and all the more so amongst people in positions of power such as politicians and journalists. If you actually wanted to significantly address this, my proposal would be to lobby the government to ring fence funding for a fully independent “black hat” institution (where any experts employed are done so solely by that institute, and are carefully handled to prevent “academic capture”) to evaluate or question any technical foundations going to inform government action. I would happily join you in doing so (to me it is a great tragedy that there is no funding for reproducing results – if you’re worried about improving scientific robustness, get some funding for that). But since this organisation doesn’t exist (no-one seems interested in paying for it) and the only option currently available to scientists is to put work out to be reviewed by peers, it seems odd that the comments of those peers raising issues is now being used to say that there is a huge flaw in the whole system.

Maybe I am wrong (I try to avoid assumptions as much as possible), but I think much of the criticisms about the field of epidemiology is a bit of an overreaction to people feeling they’ve been misled. I would ask that people should try and look at it in a bit more depth at the actual context and state of the field of research before jumping to conclusions[10].


notGoodenough 05.15.20 at 7:36 pm

A look at the paper in which the “Ferguson model” was actually used citations

[1] The reason I can be confident that Ferguson’s model has not been convincing to all epidemiologists is because many of them have raised criticisms of it, notably often months before “Sue Denim”. Here are just a few examples [https://dx.doi.org/10.1007%2Fs11538-020-00726-x; https://necsi.edu/review-of-ferguson-et-al-impact-of-non-pharmaceutical-interventions; https://intensiveblog.com/ferguson-et-al-2020-imperial-college-uk-covid-19-response-team-report/%5D

[2] I don’t know why Ferguson chose to do this, but one possible explanation (and I must stress this is pure speculation) may be that if someone was working on the pandemic, the rapid nature would make it important to expedite their work for consideration and criticism by the wider community, rather than undertaking the process of peer review – which while more rigerous does take more time. Given the preliminary nature of the work is stressed by the format in which it was published (something obvious to anyone reading it as Imperial CollegeCOVID-19 Response Team is not a peer-reviewed journal!), and that people reading the paper would understand the tentative nature of the results, I don’t know that such an evaluation would be wrong – though you are free to disagree.

[4] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01003-6

[5] I won’t go in depth as this is out of my area of expertise (I have no wish to make definitive proclamations about things the purpose of which I do not understand), but I will point out that some of the criticisms made are being contested (despite being in a forum where they are unlikely to receive the unbiased and in-depth review needed). It is worth noting that “Sue” did nothing to point out that the model was essentially a non-peer reviewed alpha version in their article – which would seem to be a worrying lack of context. There also spear to be some other concerns with “Sue”’s work which have arisen. While I won’t claim any expertise, it is worth noting that “Sue”’s claims are disputed: a) Non-deterministic outputs. “Sue” claims that this is due to bugs which are being ignored as unimportant. I don’t know how “Sue” has read the minds of the researchers to determine they take that view, but as John Carmak points out ”If we accept it at face value, we have a retired software engineer making the case that non-determinism in a simulation shows incompetence. I am all for deterministic-everything, but issues with random seeds and parallel floating point reductions are extremely widespread, and a great deal of science gets done with non-deterministic simulations. Heck, professional software engineering struggles mightily with just making completely reproducible builds.” (https://twitter.com/ID_AA_Carmack/status/1258192134752145412) I don’t cite this to make an argument from authority, but to note that other software engineers disagree with “Sue”’s assessment that the model is completely useless (and John has actually seen the code, unlike “Sue”). This isn’t to say “everything’s flawed, who cares”, but rather to say “can you demonstrate the flaws in this model make the model and its conclusions of the work so unreliable as to warrant retraction?”; b) “Sue” complains that the code is not properly commented and the coding is sloppy. This isn’t proposed as just a complaint about this model (which would seem to be reasonable), but also that all of epidemiology is responsible for not pushing back against this non-peer reviewed alpha build. How this is supposed to happen when the work has not yet been peer reviewed they sadly do not say. c) “Sue” makes some claims about single threaded work still being bugged by citing an early bug report made to Imperial (I don’t pretend to understand it). Yet in a later bug report software engineers say they weren’t able to reproduce that issue. This would suggest that i) “Sue” did not actually test the code themselves, which is unfortunate given their statements regarding the need to test before talk and ii) they are relying on the bug reports from Edinburgh to make the case, but have not carefully read through all the documentation. While I won’t assert either of those things, it would be a little alarming if that does turn out to be the case. d) “Sue” claims that this work represents a systematic failure of scientists to engage in validation – but ignores that the work hadn’t been peer reviewed and instead supports argument this by pointing to the evaluation of the code being undertaken. This would be like complaining a plumber hasn’t certified their work by pointing to the inspector currently onsite and evaluating the work prior. A rather curious criticism.

Now I can’t argue to the validity of these concerns regarding “Sue”’s comments, just as I can’t argue to the validity of “Sue”’s comments in the first place, but I find it worrying that MPs are now making public statements (as “Sue” highlights in their articles) based on “Sue”’s work (which has not been assessed at all in any meaningful fashion), just as “Sue” worries about MPs basing decisions on the non-peer reviewed work of Ferguson. I don’t think that that is unreasonable – and I hope you will agree that I too am right to be concerned.

In short, while I think it may be fair to say “scientists who use models should have their code validated and make sure it is up to snuff”, I don’t think it is fair to say “these specific scientists have submitted their alpha version code for external review and problems were found – this means the entire field (including all non-modelling work) is dangerously flawed and should be defunded immediately”. It is good to have high standards, but that seems rather extreme.

If I sound exasperated, it is because as far as I can tell a difficult and complex topic is being addressed by a wide range of researchers using a wide range of techniques – all trying to make the best work they can based on little data and little time, and carefully caveating the preliminary nature of the results. Demanding this entire field be defunded, particularly while it may be critical to current events, isn’t very helpful – particularly when done in the manner in which it was. But reasonable people may disagree.

However, just in case someone takes this out of context, I will reiterate – reviewing work and making criticisms is worthy and necessary, and something I fully support. Criticisms from people with relevant expertise is something to be welcomed, and I encourage it. But I do feel that then those criticisms also have to be evaluated by additional people with relevant expertise. It is a pity that “Sue” has not done that – at the risk of sounding stuffy, I am not convinced the best way to improve work or lodge formal complaints is by making inflammatory comments about the need to defund science on an obscure website or on twitter, and I have to question someone who is.

[6] It is worth noting that having low confidence in claims does not equal saying those claims are wrong or the people making them are stupid, incompetent, liars, etc. It just means, essentially, “I don’t think there is sufficient evidence to warrant accepting those conclusions, and would withhold judgement until evidence is provided one way or the other”. Of course, not being someone who has to make any policy decisions, I have the luxury of being able to wait until sufficient evidence is provided.

[7] And now, for what seems to be the 10 billionth time, for a good hard look at the actual problems in science (including the issues of transparency and why it can kill), I recommend reading “Bad Science” and “Bad Pharma” by Ben Goldacre as a good starting point. I read those and nodded sadly. Because there are fundamental problems with academic science at the moment (one reason amongst many why I left). But here’s the thing – scientists keep saying that, and keep arguing that we need to improve the system. The problem is no one wants to address real solutions, because they’re all boring and difficult and cost money. Instead it all descends into cherry picking things to say “all science must be burned to ashes”, and the very real and very concerning problems which actually exists remain unaddressed.

[8] Of course this would depend a lot on how the work was presented to the government. Ferguson grabbing the PM by the lapels and screaming “we’re all going to die if you don’t do what I say now” is a very different proposition than if the model was presented as “this, PM, is what we tentatively propose as our current best model. Now I must caution you that it is highly speculative at this time, but our understanding is…”. If it turns out Ferguson deliberately and knowingly misled the government I still won’t support firing all epidemiologists everywhere (because it would be only Ferguson misleading the government) but in such a case I would certainly support strong measures taken against him (including loss of job, and even up to permanent blackballing if the misdeeds were severe enough).

[9] If ever you feel your blood pressure is too low, read the Goldacre article on Brain Respiration sometime. Not only did the government spend a lot of money to have children in schools meditate on the basis of somewhat dubious justifications, but when Goldacre raised the issue with the newspaper to which they contributed at that time (the Guardian, fwiw) it refused to retract an approving piece which Goldacre pointed out was demonstrably false. That is a good example of how journalists and governments can be led astray, so we do know it happens. And that is why I would support measures to do something about it – not just saying “let’s privatise epidemiology” (who is to say the private companies wouldn’t get it wrong or lead the journalists or governments astray either?) but any actual and realistic measures which could demonstrably reduce mistakes to a maximal degree. That this important point is often neglected is infuriating to me, and to 90% of the scientists I know (the other 10% generally just drink heavily out of nihilistic despair).

[10] The fact that I keep having to explain to people that science is not about “100% certainty”, even leaving hard solipsism to one side, but instead about developing our best possible understanding (and carefully noting the degree of confidence we can have in that understanding at that time), is a little frustrating. I really do wish people spent a little more time trying to understand how science works, what it actually proposes, and how we evaluate the degree of confidence in each piece of work carried out. Particularly people in positions of power and authority, such as MPs and journalists.


notGoodenough 05.15.20 at 7:43 pm

Finally, I offer an apology to everyone for making a huge wall of text and probably annoying everyone quite a lot. In particular I’d like to apologise to Eszter Hargittai.

I only do so because I feel criticism of science is important, but should be undertaken with care – otherwise it can easily lead to a sence of nihlistic “we can’t trust anything”.

As I say, this post was mostly to make the point that whatever one may think of the Ferguson model, it has hardly been proposed as set in stone by anyone (least of all Imperial). And, to the best of my knowledge, most UK experts are in broad agreement regarding the importance of social distancing, and have come to that perspective irrespective of Ferguson and based on their own lines of research.

That isn’t to say they couldn’t be wrong, but so far there is no evidence for gross negligence in the field. I also suspect that the tentative ideas as of now will solidify as we go on. But, as I’ve said before, given that waiting for that evidence requires waiting for people to die, I feel it would not be unreasonable to propose it is better to overreact than react not at all.

Best wishes to all in this difficult period.


Zamfir 05.15.20 at 8:49 pm

“Were we seriously going to quarantine 50,000 people for two weeks?”

“Why on earth not? It is not even difficult.”

This is really the core, isn’t it? China had already put millions of people in forced quarantine, and it just didn’t register as truly real here in Europe.

I had this naive idea at the time, that governments were quietly preparing in the background. At the very least, considering the options and scenarios.


J-D 05.16.20 at 12:14 am

… Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, … [A]t any moment the situation can suddenly reverse itself and yesterday’s proved-to-the-hilt atrocity story can become a ridiculous lie, merely because the political landscape has changed.
… [O]fficial war propaganda, with its disgusting hypocrisy and self-righteousness, always tends to make thinking people sympathize with the enemy. … There was even a tendency to feel that … atrocities had become, as it were, retrospectively untrue because the … Government now drew attention to them.
But unfortunately the truth about atrocities is far worse than that they are lied about and made into propaganda. The truth is that they happen. … These things really happened, that is the thing to keep one’s eye on. They happened even though [a leading right-wing politician] said they happened. … [T]hey did not happen any the less because [a right-wing media source] has suddenly found out about them when it is five years too late.

George Orwell, ‘Looking Back On The Spanish War’


ph 05.16.20 at 11:33 am

Just a couple of points.

A cousin who spent her career as child psychologist in the public school system of a major Canadian city remarked that confining children under ten to their homes, and denying them social contact with peers isn’t an experience children are likely to forget, whether they wish to or not. That damage to children seems to be a ‘necessary’ consequence of the current UK practice. (It’s frankly impossible for me to believe that keeping children at home for months could be acceptable for any reason, but that does seem to be the case.)

The last I read out of Stanford, based on studies of MLB baseball teams and support staff, suggest lockdowns have little impact. Fitness and social distancing matter far more, especially as there are an enormous number of asymptomatic carriers.

Obesity, like smoking, is preventable. Exercise is something all can participate in. Making a concerted effort to change dietary and lifestyle practices (including gargling, hand-washing, etc.) seems to me the only realistic defense against the next cluster of bugs. Suggesting that all lifestyle choices are equal is fine, but tell that to your physiology and immune system. Physicians have long warned of the consequences of obesity and bad diet, with huge increased in diabetes and related diseases in the last two decades. Swedes, Germans, the Dutch, and Asians in general are less likely to be obese than other groups, and obesity is as important a predictor of survival as age.

Failing to exercise and control diet is bad habit to develop and indulge, now, before COVID, and in the future. According to the Stanford study, there’s no escaping COVID, long-term lock-downs are untenable, and the infirm are certain to be at increased risk.

So, what we need is another study, rather than a frank discussion about lifestyle choices?


George Berger 05.17.20 at 8:47 am

I have visited Sweden since 1983 and am a Permanent Resident since 2009. Of course I am decent at the language. It is difficult to explain the situation, since the press conferences are woefully insufficient. My take is that the Public Health Authority FHM is going for herd immunity while ignoring the Lockdown alternative. Their restrictions are ineffective, on March 11 or 12th testing and tracking became minimal, as happened in the UK and Holland. That is only compatible with HI hopes. Indeed, Anders Tegnell and Johan Giesecke have said as much, mainly in Swedish. They hope to infect as many as possible and have predicted HI for May…Now June. Then what? Recent WHO advice rejects this (Mike Ryan’s video was manipulated to suggest support for FHM, WHO corrected that). Turns out that very few were infected in Spain and it is unknown how many there have produced antibodies and if they confer immunity and in what strength.
……In my estimation FHM are acting immorally, by rejecting Lockdowns out of hand. They most likely will lead to fewer deaths than an uncontroled infection spread with a goal that might be unreacheable. This is the reason for Johnson’s about face on March 26 I think. Nobody has refuted that, one prediction of Imperial Report 9. I’m afraid the future in Sweden is deadlier than is necessary, thanks to FHM.


notGoodenough 05.17.20 at 5:11 pm

It is, perhaps, worth noting that research and advances in knowledge help us make more accurate and better targeted responses. Continuing research may uncover things we previously did not know, or couldn’t easily detect; additional studies may reveal information we weren’t aware of previously; sometimes we need to look at many demographics to put together the information we need to understand a medical question. I would posit that the best tool humanity has available is knowledge – and seeking to continually improve that knowledge so that we may better understand and respond to events is, I would tentatively propose, hardly the worst thing in the world to do.

We did not used to have any real response to smallpox. Thankfully, through hard work and a lot of luck (and it was very hard work due to the lack of medical knowledge at the time) a smallpox vaccine was developed which saved countless lives. One pioneer in this field was Edward Jenner – and, coincidentally, today (17/05/2020) is 271 years to the day of his birth (17/05/1749).

Personally, I for one am glad that people have, throughout the years, continued to strive to improve our medical (and general) knowledge.


hix 05.18.20 at 1:07 pm

Just watched the janitor of an elderly home standing at best half a meter away from two external garden worker chatting for fifteen minutes. His mask did not cover his nose and at the end he was trying to shake hands, which the garden worker probably only stoped because he saw me watching in more and more shock.
Not quite sure what to make of this. The sad and still positive interpretation would be that this was common all the time and we still got significant improvments. The catastrophic less likely one would be that this is new and we will see an explosion of cases soon. The covid measures efficiency are a mix of both how usefull they are and how high compliance rates are. My guess for now is that many asian nations did alright with soft measures because they had high compliance rates. Shutting down schools is a pretty drastic measure in many ways – the economic cost is also much more significant long run than shutting down shops for a year. The positive beaty of it is that it not only avoids the contagion risk at school, the parents are also pretty much forced to stay home. One of Swedens mistakes was probably that they could ensure widespread compliance to measures that can not possibly be controled by just asking nicely without even ordering. That was a bit too much to expect, even from Swedes. Even less so if they beat arround the bush about herd immunity, which is like begging young people to be as careless as possible.

The real interesting part is to look at nations that in general are rather careless about government ordered rules. At first you would expect them to not care at all about corona rules – at least a significant majorty which is enough for a catastroph and Germans to comply at least as much as they comply to not going over an empty street at the pedestrian crossing when the traffic lights are red. At this point, we can already say that is not quite what happened. While that could be explained in Italy or Spain simply by how bad things before measures were taken, that explanation does not hold for example for the Czech republic. And they seem to do quite well. A certain elment of flexibility and creativity in behaviour patterns might also help to switch to a catastrofe mode more easily where strict rules are obied and also sort of invented (consider how Czech started the self made mask wearing early on and quite strict among Europeans).


hix 05.18.20 at 1:17 pm

sentence logic correction: that they thaught they could- the Swedes
(another factor is simply the time point at which measures were taken and in this regard dumb luck also played a major role)

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